“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
– President Teddy Roosevelt
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is now officially baptized.
It’s a rite of passage for every governor. At some point in a governor’s term, he or she will face a major crisis.
DeSantis’s predecessor, Rick Scott, faced the tests of four major crises: Hurricanes Irma and Michael and the massacres at the Pulse nightclub and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Great Recession tested Charlie Crist.
Gov. DeSantis’s test is COVID-19. He will be remembered forever for how he led the state through this crisis.
And at this point, it’s time for Gov. DeSantis to step up. Big. Bold. And fast.
With all due respect, it is time to act. We cannot wait for Washington.
Florida’s economy is on the verge of an epic catastrophe. Unless the economic side of this crisis is addressed swiftly, decisively and with a spirit of hope, we would go so far as to say the damage to the families of the 9 million working Floridians will be larger and more severe than the health effects of the virus on Florida’s 21 million population.
We know the first priority of the corona crisis was to address the health front, to enact measures necessary to keep the virus from spreading. But over the past two weeks as the list of emergency orders, bans and restrictions flowed from the Trump administration in Washington, gubernatorial executive orders and local governments, it became clear the second front of this war — the economic front — was rising with the same virulence.
It is no exaggeration to say every business owner in Florida is looking at his or her cash balance with a fear that is bordering on helpless panic. With their hearts and pulse rates rising, every one of these business owners is constantly walking around with these questions bearing down on him or her:
How long can I last?
How long can I keep paying my employees so they can feed their families?
How long before I start letting them go?
Will I have to declare bankruptcy?
Will I have to shut down?
That day already has struck for many businesses. Here’s one big example: Feld Entertainment, the Manatee-based, live-show producer of Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and Sesame Street Live, laid off nearly 90% of its workforce already — between 900 to 1,200 employees. Employees received varying amounts of severance; their health insurance coverage will stop at the end of the month.
Now extrapolate that throughout the state. Florida has 2,333,578 for-profit and not-for-profit businesses. Ninety-nine percent — or 2,310,242 — are small businesses, all with fewer than 100 employees, most with fewer than 20. The vast majority of the owners of these businesses are trying to remain calm, but they all are stressed about survival.
Now put on top of their worries, the worries of their employees. All employees are sitting at home today, and while trying to work, they also are wondering: Will I have a job tomorrow? What will I do? How will I pay my mortgage?
Let’s get even more granular on the most pronounced effect of this virus on Florida’s economy. Consider this: 3,068,000 Floridians (moms, dads, etc.) are employed in Florida’s tourism, hospitality, restaurants, retail trade and affiliated trade and wholesale businesses. That’s 34% of all jobs, the largest segment of employment in the state.
These are the businesses that typically have the least amount of financial wherewithal to withstand a shock like this. These businesses need immediate assistance — not two weeks from now. They need it now!
And to be sure, our government officials are only exacerbating the economic crisis when they issue “stay-at-home” proclamations, except for essential services.
We stood last week with an owner of a 60-year-old, family-owned, Sarasota auto body shop. He told us in a typical week he would see a dozen to 15 car owners a day pull in to his shop for repairs. The phone was always ringing. Last week, he said he had four inquiries for the entire week.
Or take any business, say, a dental office. The governor banned them from opening. If any business was to be extraordinarily careful in its health practices, you could be sure it would be Florida’s dentists.
The point here is that while our public officials are acting out of a rational, heightened sense of caution (and their own fears) — and it’s good that they are — there appears to be little convincing evidence coming from our state officials that the medicine that is being dispensed is in the right proportions. There seems to be little cost-benefit analysis. To be blunt, we are suggesting that public officials are acting hastily and with emotion more than with facts. Understandably, it appears they are afraid to be accused of not following the official crowd, rather than examine the facts (see box).
We know the above statements will bring forceful criticism and opposition. But as this crisis progresses and our government officials continue to raise the level of quarantines, lockdowns and restrictions in the name of preserving lives, there is another side to the scale that must be weighed.
This is why we are urging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva to demonstrate Patton-like leadership. They need to show Floridians they know they are fighting a two-front war and that they know they must turn as much attention to the economic front as they are to the health front.
They need to take immediate action. They need to go big and bold. They need to present far-reaching, impactful plans that address the here and now and the future. As Gen. Patton famously said: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”
Most of all, our state leaders need to give Floridians hope — hope that their lives are not going to end up in breadlines and broke. As one observer told us: “I would rather die of coronavirus than go through breadlines and having little hope like the Great Depression.”
Matt Walsh is editor and CEO of the Observer Media Group. Joel Schleicher is a resident of Sarasota and entrepreneur whose companies successfully survived and thrived after three major economic downturns.