The topic of when to reopen is a hot one among business owners and executives.
A survey of nearly 600 executives in the region, focusing on Sarasota-Bradenton and Lakeland, reveals, for the most part, these areas mirror the national conversation in two ways: economic carnage and confusing and conflicting views on when to end the shutdown.
On the economy, while 38.55% of respondents say they have retained all their employees, at least 45%, the survey shows, have done some combination of furloughs, layoffs, pay reductions, hour reductions and benefit cuts. In regard to business results, nearly 6 out of 10 respondents, 58.21%, say monthly sales in March and April declined at least 50%. Another 17.44% say the decline was between 21% and 50%.
With sales down and payrolls slashed, a majority of businesses have applied for multiple types of financial relief, the survey shows. That includes 69.38% who applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and 14.71% who applied for state funds. A few respondents, in the comment section, mentioned the chaotic start to the PPP and other programs, including the much-maligned Florida unemployment website and program.
“Despite having applied for unemployment since March 20, not one employee has received unemployment benefits,” wrote one respondent, through the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. “This is heartbreaking!”
Also, much like the conversations going on all across Florida, and the world, opinions on how to get out of the pandemic-led shutdown vary widely. On the question, for example, of “when should your business and your industry sector be allowed to reopen?” 22.98% responded now — the highest among five choices. Just behind that answer, in a stark opposition at 20.11%, is “when new reported cases of CV19 in the region have declined seven consecutive days.”
The survey, conducted online, was co-sponsored by the Business Observer and connected to an ad-hoc group, the Sarasota/Manatee Project Resurrection Task Force, made up of eight area business and civic leaders. (See sidebar for full list of task force members.) On April 22, the task force sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, State Sen. President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and State House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, outlining a series of recommendations for ending Florida’s safer-at-home order and allowing businesses in the region to reopen by May 11.
The survey, meanwhile, was sent to business owners, executives and entrepreneurs April 20-April 27, through emails and email blasts. Area organizations that sent the survey to its members and reported findings to Observer Media Group include the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, the St. Armands Circle Association, the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce and the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce.
Survey questions about when and how to re-open businesses brought out the most comments, with the majority leaning toward caution — despite the slight, and more silent, majority who answered to open up “now.”
Comments on when to open things up include the following:
• From a Longboat Key chamber respondent: “I don’t have a crystal ball. We aren’t going to risk giving or receiving the virus.”
• From a Business Observer respondent: “June/July maybe. Base this on data, not politics. A seven-day decline means nothing (without) infrastructure in place. Florida is about to get worse from lack of testing, no tracking of people exposed to this. 99% of people in Manatee County have not been tested and probably 15% of people are carrying this now based on data from other states. Wake up Florida, please.”
• From a Sarasota chamber respondent: “We must be governed by the science, meeting the testing standards and the advice of the medical professionals. Certainly not by Trump's gut feeling.”
• From a Sarasota chamber respondent: “Complicated question. Need more requirements and protocols in place to ensure responsible, pragmatic, safety precautions.”
• From a Longboat Key chamber respondent: “Guidelines require that there be 14 consecutive days of decreasing infections and then ONLY by phasing and maintaining gatherings of no more than 10 and social distancing.”
• From a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance respondent: “Probably not until July...we expect to continue canceling client trips and (hopefully) rescheduling. But no income ($0) expected until fall.”
• From a Manatee chamber respondent: “When there is sufficient testing materials to ensure a safe community. The federal government is a failure in this regard. Manatee County has to purchase additional testing kits just to get MC to the same level of testing as the rest of the state. We need to be testing 200%. Yes everyone one needs to be tested twice in the coming year.”