In 2020, the saying “We’re all in the same boat” has largely been disproved by the U.S. economy. Some industries and employees are thriving, while others are barely hanging on. 

Unemployment

Monroe County has always enjoyed the lowest unemployment rates in Florida, usually less than 3%. (Many say this is because the unemployed cannot afford to live in the most expensive county in the state.) But during the pandemic, that number swelled to about 32.2%, according to Florida’s unemployment dashboard. Workers in the accommodation and food industries were hardest hit, followed by the self-employed who struggled to provide “acceptable” documentation to the state. The state’s unemployment system underperformed badly in the beginning of the pandemic, with the system crashing and unemployed unable to apply. Then applicants waited weeks for seemingly random amounts of money to be deposited into their accounts.  

“It wasn’t long before I realized how dysfunctional it all was,” said Carol Tedesco back in May, a self-employed worker in Key West. “In the beginning, I thought it was a database issue. Now, I’m seeing it as a combination of database issues, incompetence and smoke-and-mirror tactics.”

According to the state, as of Dec. 29 it has paid $19.7 billion in unemployment since March 15, 2020. 

The good news is that the Keys seem to be recovering better than other tourist hot spots like Orlando, according to a presentation to the Monroe County Board of Commissioners in November by Hank Fishkind of PFM Consulting.  

Back in April, almost every tax-paying American received $1,200 via direct deposit as soon as the CARES Act passed. In the bill passed last week, the same group would receive another $600.

It pays to know your banker

The federal $2.2 trillion CARES Act, or COVID-19 bill, was signed into law in late March. Part of it — $350 billion — was set aside for the PPP, or payroll protection program. Essentially, employers could apply and then use the money, among other things, to pay their idle or furloughed workers. Just last week, Congress authorized a second round of PPP funding of $284 billion.

Employers applied through banks for the Small Business Administration loans. The roll-out of the first loans was fraught with confusion. In the first round of the program, the funds were snapped up quickly and many business owners were left out in the cold. Those who succeeded told stories of a close relationship with local bankers willing to walk them through the steps as the banks also received on-the-job training. 

“In defense of all banks participating in PPP, this is an unprecedented situation and no bank was set up to handle it,” said Stephanie Scuderi of Centennial Bank in April. 

Real estate boom

During the pandemic, two industries in the Florida Keys were outperforming all the others — real estate and construction. 

At the beginning of June, Realtors in the Florida Keys were banking on something they called “pent-up demand.” Sales were down that month by more than 20% compared to 2019 numbers. 

A month later, sales exploded

In Monroe County, sales of residential properties jumped 50% over 2019 numbers. In 2019, 191 homes sold. In 2020, the number soared to 286. In terms of dollar volume for the entire Florida Keys, that represents $209 million in sales in July, an increase of $72 million just for that month compared to July 2019.

Middle Keys attorney Tom Wright has worked almost exclusively in real estate closings since 1987.

 “I don’t think I ever imagined a year that there would be a pandemic and yet we are doing a record amount of business,” Wright said. 

Lauren Varney, marketing director with Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty, said property sales in the Keys were across the board, from affordable to high-end.

“We’ve found that people want out of big cities, and after spending so much time in their homes, they’ve re-evaluated what they want and are either relocating or finally making those second- or third-home purchases that they might have second-guessed in a more normal environment,” she said. 

The amount of movement in the real estate market was also good for construction, as new buyers sought to personalize the home, or existing homeowners sought to make the home more appealing in the stay-at-home climate. 

There was one other beneficiary to the real estate boom: moving companies. Experts examined the increased demand for one-way rentals to try and pinpoint the migration between cities. Locally, franchise owners of U-haul rental truck fleets say business is at an all-time high.

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