Florida had a terrible summer in its fight against COVID-19. The state set several grim records, including recording nearly as many deaths from June to the end of September as in all of 2020, when vaccines weren’t available. The change in seasons, however, has delivered a brighter outlook. No one should be bellowing “The pandemic is over!” COVID and its variants will likely be with us for a long time. But there are positive signs that the state is regaining its footing after the summer’s staggering blow.
Let’s start with the numbers. New COVID cases in Florida have plummeted in recent weeks, from more than 22,000 cases a day in late August to less than 1,800 a day this week. Only a couple months ago, Florida was leading the country in new cases. Now the state has the lowest new case rate. That’s right — Florida has gone from worst to best.
Based on a seven-day average, the state on Thursday had just eight new daily cases for every 100,000 residents, edging out Hawaii which recorded an average of nine cases. (At the other end of the scale, Alaska recorded 94 cases per 100,000 residents.) COVID tends to ebb and flow and Florida’s numbers could spike again, but the turnaround in new cases is remarkable.
Daily COVID deaths have also fallen in Florida, though not as steeply as new cases. The state’s daily death rate over the last week ranked 17-highest among the states. About 113 Floridians a day are dying from COVID, down from an average of more than 370 a couple months ago. That’s still 113 deaths too many, but as we all know now, deaths tend to lag behind the trend in new cases. So with such a steep drop in cases, it’s a good bet that deaths will continue to fall in coming weeks. That’s a good reason for cautious optimism.
On the economic front, the state added an impressive 84,500 new jobs from August to September, six times more than the average monthly increase over the last decade. The boost helped the state regain more than 1 million of the 1.27 million jobs lost at the start of the pandemic last year. The number of unemployed people fell while the number of people in the labor force grew, a one-two punch of positive labor news. The unemployment rate ticked down to a respectable 4.9 percent, and the average number of people seeking unemployment benefits for the first time is close to pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic closed a lot of Florida businesses and wrecked the finances of many families, but the state’s overall economic outlook is getting back to where it was before we all got a crash course on the definition of “coronavirus.”
Locally, Tampa Bay’s retail industry has rebounded, according to a new report from Franklin Street, a Tampa-based commercial real estate firm. In September, foot traffic based on cellphone location data around shops and restaurants in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties was near or exceeded pre-COVID levels. While this is a national trend, Tampa Bay’s retail industry outpaced the nation as a whole, the report found. In addition, the Urban Land Institute ranked our metro area among the top five emerging markets for real estate for strong growth, homebuilding outlook, affordability and job prospects.
Another upbeat indicator: Broadway touring shows returned to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts for the first time since 2020, thanks to vaccine and mask requirements for the audience, and the availability of onsite rapid COVID testing.
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None of this is to suggest it’s time to let down our guard, especially with the upcoming holiday season, which often brings people together indoors where the virus spreads more easily. Vaccinations remain our best collective defense against serious illness or death. Masks and strategic social distancing still play an important supporting role in controlling the virus, as do the twin bulwarks of common sense and personal responsibility.
COVID has waned in Florida in recent weeks, and more hopeful economic signs have emerged. Those are two trends worth celebrating.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.