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What ‘normal’ might look like in six months in Florida | Perspective
By topic, Florida thought leaders and Times’ newsroom experts weigh in on what the near future holds.
What will the next six months look like post-coronavirus?
What will the next six months look like post-coronavirus? [ RON BORRESEN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 24, 2020

In five or six months, we probably won’t be stuck in our homes, but where exactly might we be, literally and metaphorically? To answer that question — from our workplaces to our classrooms, from the sports stadium and concert hall to the campaign trail and the voting booth — we reached out to thought leaders, from the president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce to the president of Florida’s flagship university and to experts in our own newsroom. Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

The right re-start for Florida’s economy

A sign posted at a retail store named The Bazaar Project says the store is closed due to the new coronavirus pandemic, April 9, 2020, in Miami.
A sign posted at a retail store named The Bazaar Project says the store is closed due to the new coronavirus pandemic, April 9, 2020, in Miami. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Balancing the right health and safety outcomes with the right “re-start” of Florida’s economy is vital, and that’s why the Florida Chamber is uniting business around the right measures as we transition toward restarting Florida’s economy.

Restarting the world’s 17th largest economy is going to be more strategic, complicated and lengthy than the ramp-down was. The timing and process will have more to do with the virus being contained and the spread slowing to near zero than any of us wish were the case. We must strike the right balance between staying safe, while also keeping workers paid, businesses from going under and, eventually, re-imagining an even stronger economy.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson [ COLIN HACKLEY | COLIN HACKLEY ]

Before COVID-19, Florida was the 17th largest economy in the world, we were creating one out of 11 new U.S. jobs, we were the 20th most diversified economy, the third largest state in the country and growing by 900 people a day. I believe Florida can fare well during this time of reopening, but it will require restarting our economy the right way.

Let’s learn from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, who began reopening their economies only to find a resurgence of cases, a secondary spread and, unfortunately, a redeployment of restrictions on commerce, gatherings, travel and more. Restarting Florida’s economy won’t be as simple as flipping on a light switch. It will require methodical planning with new measures that emphasize safety for all Floridians and new approaches that will require all of us to adapt. At the same time, we need to provide clear guidelines for employers to restart their business, devoid of unnecessary mandates or restrictions that may give way to litigation. Doing so will help ensure a smooth transition as we navigate our restart and recovery.

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We’ve been working closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis and his team, and their careful attention to data, modeling and reopening the right way is to be commended. As we continue practicing social distancing and working remotely, the Florida Chamber and over 150 local chambers of commerce have been meeting virtually and charting a path for restarting Florida’s economy. And as we continue to unite Florida’s business community, it will be vital that cities, counties and mayors, in concert with local chambers of commerce, economic developers and job creators, work collaboratively to ensure restarting our economy is coordinated, follows a framework and is done right. After all, bringing the best thought leaders together to solve problems is not just an idea — it’s the best idea — and the root of our existence.

By the end of summer, I hope Florida businesses will have adapted to the new normal, recognizing that may be different by region. I would hope that testing is readily available and ubiquitous, new treatments are showing promise, and that a vaccine for the coronavirus is showing promise. If these things happen, Florida will be well positioned to recover and get back on track to becoming the 17th largest economy in the world.

Mark Wilson is president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and can be reached at mwilson@flchamber.com.

A university is a community, virtually and in reality.

University of South Florida students are seen walking around campus at USF on Feb. 8, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.
University of South Florida students are seen walking around campus at USF on Feb. 8, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. [ Times (2018) ]

When the University of Florida moved to all online classes in March and urged students to go home, they were slower to leave than we anticipated. As UF plans for the fall, it’s clear they’re eager to return to Gainesville — and that freshmen have every intention of joining them here.

Many are asking how COVID-19 will change the face of higher education. But with the pandemic still playing out, a more answerable question may be: What is this crisis revealing about universities?

W. Kent Fuchs
W. Kent Fuchs [ Times (2017) ]

I suggest four answers:

First, students greatly appreciate and benefit from being part of a college community, with all its social, academic and extracurricular options. UF is on pace to reach full freshmen enrollment by our May 1 deadline, as in previous years, and our residence halls are on track to fill — despite all the disruption from COVID-19 and continuing uncertainties across higher education about how classes will be delivered in the fall.

Second, online learning is a growing part of higher education. When UF joined other universities in moving to all-online classes, the transition was abrupt, but faculty continued to teach and students continued to learn. A big reason was that online learning was already so integrated into our academic experience. Nearly 70 percent of our undergraduates were taking at least one online course in the spring 2020 semester as COVID-19 struck.

Third, just as traditional campus life is important to students, so are traditional in-person classes. Although standards may evolve, in-person laboratories are expected components of today’s curricula for many STEM students, as are hands-on studios for arts, architecture, dance and other students. Ensuring that all these students keep these opportunities is a top priority for UF in the coming fall.

Fourth, large research universities with academic health centers are uniquely equipped to assist during national emergencies. At UF, our academic health center is conducting research on therapeutics, epidemiology and other aspects of COVID-19; contributing to COVID-19 testing; and actively treating COVID-19 patients. With our facilities and expertise, it seems likely that this role will only grow for this and future emergencies.

The first European university was founded in 1088 in Bologna, Italy, so universities have existed for more than 10 centuries — outlasting empires, governments and major international conflicts.

I believe our resilience stems in part from the intrinsic value of our mission of teaching and learning and of scholarship that expands understanding and benefits humanity. But I also believe universities have endured because of their flexibility in responding to world events and in adapting to changing technologies and evolving knowledge.

COVID-19 will disrupt universities temporarily. But in the long term, I believe we will draw on its lessons to improve our institutions, benefit our students and increase our contributions to people and the planet.

Kent Fuchs is president of the University of Florida.

Sports may be back. Fans in the stands? Nope.

Fans walk into Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays Fan Fest on Feb. 9, 2019 in Saint Petersburg.
Fans walk into Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays Fan Fest on Feb. 9, 2019 in Saint Petersburg. [ Times (2019) ]

The players will return, the games will return, the fans will not.

Disappointed? Don’t be, because that’s a best-case scenario. By the fall, sports will have forever assumed their rightful place in society. That is, somewhere less than necessary.

And so we should be happy to welcome sports back with empty bleachers and a silent soundtrack. No roar of the crowd. No kids chasing foul balls. No standing ovations for the Community Hero at Amalie Arena.

In the short term, made-for-TV games are the only way this can work. And, even then, it may not be foolproof. If coronavirus tests aren’t available nationwide or if there is a second wave to the pandemic, then the dugouts and sidelines will be vacated again.

John Romano.
John Romano. [ CHERIE DIEZ | St. Petersburg Times ]

That’s what these past few weeks have taught us. That we miss games terribly, but they are mostly a luxury.

The larger question is not what sports will look like later this year, but what the impact will be in the years to come. That’s because the current loss of revenue will have an immediate impact on teams, and the financial crisis nationwide will have a longer-term effect on the spending habits of fans.

You need only look at the Great Depression to understand that. Attendance at Major League Baseball games fell nearly 40 percent from 1930 to 1933. In Philadelphia, the Athletics were coming off three consecutive pennants when their attendance cratered by 65 percent across several seasons, forcing owner Connie Mack to sell off his best players, including four future Hall of Famers.

Varying degrees of revenue sharing in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB should prevent such a drastic collapse by today’s franchises, but there will undoubtedly be roster decisions predicated on how dire finances get in any particular market.

Already, we have seen the fledging XFL football league shut down operations and file bankruptcy this spring, and wrestling’s WWE jumped through political hoops to avoid having its lucrative TV contract voided.

College athletics will be particularly hard hit. If college football is delayed or postponed in 2020 — and it’s hard to imagine university presidents allowing football teams to gather if the student population is not yet back on campus — it will create havoc in athletic departments that depend on men’s basketball and football to bankroll other sports.

History will remember 2020 as the season of the asterisk in sports, but the legacy will live on well past this calendar.

John Romano is a sports columnist for the Times. He can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com and @romano_tbtimes.

Turning the tables: Florida schools will learn from this.

Landon Rancke, left, and his big brother, Ryan Rancke work together to set up a computer for online learning. Both are students in the Pinellas County school system.
Landon Rancke, left, and his big brother, Ryan Rancke work together to set up a computer for online learning. Both are students in the Pinellas County school system. [ Kristin Rancke ]

Like everything else, the pandemic has changed K-12 education, and there is every reason to think the effects will be lasting in Florida.

For 20 years, the state’s education system has focused on testing and school grades to measure success, hold schools accountable and push kids to ever higher levels of achievement. Every year or two, the bar is raised with even more rigor in the hope that students can rise to the new standard.

In mid-March, amid climbing fears about the coronavirus, the underpinnings of that system were washed away, like dock pilings in a hurricane. Officials closed campuses and canceled state testing. Rigor gave way to compassion as educators acknowledged the stresses that “distance learning” placed on families.

Tom Tobin
Tom Tobin

Not many people are saying it plainly. But, yes, conditions are forcing teachers to be lenient as they grade. Some districts will have no final exams for middle and high school students this year. And there are no guarantees it will be safe to reopen schools in the fall.

Educators in every corner of the state are doing their best to make this work. But, without question, it has been hard.

Many parents have shown little ability or desire to teach their kids. Many teachers are finding it difficult to engage with students. Many students are showing a surprising lack of basic technological skill. And a few thousand kids in the Tampa Bay area have had zero — repeat, zero — contact with their schools or teachers since campuses shut down.

The annual summer phenomenon called “learning loss” is sure to be magnified in a year when the entire fourth quarter was in flames. So districts will try to catch kids up this summer and assess the losses in August.

What happens after that? The sudden implosion of Florida’s 20-year-old education model has given rise to talk that maybe it’s time to reassess.

This spring, without weeks given over to state tests, teachers are taking time for “enrichment” to the extent they can online.

And with the reins of accountability loosened as education moves to the home front, teachers are more at liberty to rely on their instincts and creativity — something they have craved for years.

Another realization in these recent weeks is that schools need to do a better job of making technology available to more kids, and teaching them how to use it. Districts may want to reexamine practices like allowing select groups of magnet students to take home laptops while other kids in the same school go without.

Teachers have been forced to build their skills, finding new ways to present material online that go beyond PowerPoint slides. Many have already started to imagine ways to make distance learning more available and helpful even in normal times.

The road ahead is uncertain. A resurgent virus could to keep K-12 schools closed even longer. A weakened economy could lead to budget cuts affecting classrooms.

But there are silver linings, including a renewed appreciation for all the things schools do. Kids are saying they miss their teachers. Teachers are aching to see their students. Parents are seeing first hand the expertise and supreme patience it takes to teach their children for 180 days every year.

School is often derided as a necessary evil, something we dismiss with an eye roll. Turns out, we actually miss it.

Thomas C. Tobin is the Times’ education editor

No politicians will be kissing babies before Election Day.

In this March 15, 2020, file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, greet one another before they participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington.
In this March 15, 2020, file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, greet one another before they participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

Retail politics is dead — for now. Kissing babies and shaking hands? Out of the question. Anyone want to volunteer to knock on doors? Didn’t think so. Can candidates hold events — at restaurants or school gymnasiums or arenas — while practicing social distancing? Seems unwise. The coronavirus has changed electoral politics in ways that are unlikely to be undone by summer and perhaps not even before November. President Donald Trump already canceled two months of rallies planned for swing states, including one tentatively scheduled for Tampa. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden hasn’t been seen in public since before Florida’s March 17 primary. At the moment, the public health risk of either candidate stepping in front of a packed audience appears greater than the political risk of avoiding the campaign trail.

Instead, candidates, from the presidential level to county commission races, are preparing for a campaign that is entirely digital. Trump’s campaign is training hundreds of volunteers every week on how to engage with voters from home. Biden started a podcast. Like everyone else, candidates are learning how to Zoom. Expect your phone to ping often with candidates trying to reach voters any way they can. As one Republican operative recently said, “Texting is the new handshake.”

Steve Contorno
Steve Contorno [ CHRIS URSO | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

For now, the fast-changing environment would seem to benefit incumbent candidates, especially in local races. It’s difficult getting your name out there when no one is “out there.” And on a more practical level, for local candidates, just getting on the ballot requires a hefty sum of money or thousands of petition signatures. Incumbents have well-oiled fundraising machines that can raise those filing fees; challengers don’t and it’s not like they can walk around and ask for John Hancocks.

Some wonder if political operations will ever return to the old ways. Campaigns were already starting to resemble Silicon Valley startups, fueled by big data, apps and the latest trends in digital marketing. This fast-spreading virus could accelerate elections toward a future where volunteers and supporters are mobilized remotely, candidates speak to supporters via video and the traditional hallmarks of election season (like supporters with clipboards and campaign offices) are relics of a bygone era. In other words, retail politics could be dead for good.

Steve Contorno is the Times’ political editor.

After the coronavirus, will anyone feel like crowdsurfing at a concert anymore?

Professional wrestler Titus O'Neil takes the stage Wednesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg during the annual Steinbrenner Family Children's Holiday Concert.
Professional wrestler Titus O'Neil takes the stage Wednesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg during the annual Steinbrenner Family Children's Holiday Concert. [ New York Yankees ]

Tom DeGeorge can’t see the future. He knows his Ybor City bar and music venue, Crowbar, will come back. He’ll host concerts. Live music won’t die forever.

But will those shows feel the same? Post-coronavirus, will people pack in shoulder to shoulder, share sweaty hugs, pass each other beers, surf atop the mosh pit? Will musicians jump into the crowd? Snap photos with fans at the merch table?

“This thing is going to leave scars on people,” DeGeorge said. “Where a show would normally sell out, people might say, ‘You know, I think that show’s going to be too crowded. I’m actually not going to go, because I’m afraid of catching something from somebody.’

Jay Cridlin
Jay Cridlin

It’s been six weeks since the last live concerts in Tampa Bay. Living in quarantine, we’ve adjusted. We’ve gotten used to seeing musicians live-stream performances from their living rooms. When things return to a new version of normal, we might keep a bit of that in our diets.

But it won’t be enough. DeGeorge is right: Live music will return. The instant euphoria of the right song at the right moment in the right crowd is too addictive an experience.

It’ll take a while. Larger shows, especially festivals, will struggle, and some will go away. Same with venues, especially bars and smaller clubs. Older artists, or those with underlying health conditions, might be more reticent to tour. And artists of all ages won’t rush it. Even those who can fill an arena may hesitate to do so before a vaccine is deployed.

But in time, Taylor Swift will get back on the road, and Billie Eilish and BTS and the Rolling Stones, too. Fans will buy tickets — maybe not as many or as quickly, but they’ll come.

And far below their level, you’ll see musicians who are young, hungry and daring, and whose fans will see and appreciate that as always. A singer will share a mic with a fan. A rapper will dive into the crowd. It’ll feel passionate and rebellious and a little dangerous — all qualities that have powered the pop-industrial complex since Day 1.

And, yes, it’ll feel different. But at least it’ll feel. That’s the point of live music. And it’s why DeGeorge knows it won’t go away.

“The bar will be back, whether it be 30 days, 60 days or 90 days,” he said. “We will be open.”

Jay Cridlin is the Times’ entertainment critic.

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