OWA is a ghost town and the Rollin’ Thunder isn’t rollin’. The ferris wheel at The Wharf isn’t spinning. No one is racing in the go karts or playing putt-putt or pumping coins into the arcade games at The Track.
The beaches are absent of people, too, but videos have been posted of deer frolicking in the surf. Traffic is light. Many retail stores are closed. Some restaurants and bars are offering takeout, but don’t look for nightlife — it isn’t there either.
This isn’t supposed to be Baldwin County during Spring Break, but it is. And the lack of commerce isn’t limited to the beach.
From the Highway 59 corridor to the Eastern Shore and Bay Minette, business and tax revenue has slowed to a trickle. Only those deemed “essential” by the Alabama Department of Public Health are still open, where residents and visitors can still purchase groceries, household goods, hardware and medication.
This may be the new norm, at least until April 30, the latest extension of social distancing guidelines recommended by the federal government. But it’s already started to take a toll.
According to the Alabama Department of Labor, unemployment claims in Baldwin County jumped from just 30 the week ending March 14 to 472 the week ending March 21. The entire report for March will not be released until April 17, but Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance (BCEDA), expects them to rise.
“We’re hearing different things,” he said last Friday. “Standard Furniture in Bay Minette furloughed all but 16 employees of 290. Construction and those that supply the industry are seeing jobs move forward while some retailers are benefiting from this and some service sectors are having folks work remotely.”
Among other sources, BCEDA has been monitoring employment analytics from a software called JobsEQ, which “ranked Baldwin County as the most vulnerable county in Alabama for job loss during this crisis,” according to Lawson.
The county is also ranked as the 154th most vulnerable in the United States, while South Alabama was identified as the 14th most vulnerable metropolitan statiscal area (MSA) in the country.
“We pulled some data looking back all the way to January 2005, and April 2007 was a low water mark where we had about 1,991 people on the unemployment roll in Baldwin County,” Lawson said. “January through March of 2010, post-recession and the BP oil spill, were high water marks for us, where we had between 11 and 12 percent unemployment in those months, equating to around 9,000 people. If you look at the spike in unemployment claims in the last two weeks, we’ll very well end up back at oil spill levels or above that. So, just in the precipitous rise and the tightening of our economy and it doesn’t even include beach closure in that span.”
In other words, whether or not the pandemic itself subsidies before the summer, the economic damage has already been done and the worst may be yet to come.
“Thirty-six percent of our workforce is in retail and food and accommodation, so over a third of our workforce is in a very vulnerable and susceptible industry sector,” Lawson said.
Over the years, he said, as the tourism sector has largely reached its full potential in the county, BCEDA has focused on diversifying the economy by attracting new jobs in health care, IT and manufacturing. But while many conclusions can’t be drawn until the crisis is long over, Lawson said he expects the pandemic to lead to “a lot of changes … economically, behaviorally … there will be a lot of business adaption.”
And when it is over, there is no guarantee the jobs here before will be available afterward, or that employees will return to fill them if they are. One employer told Lawson the increased benefits in the federal economic stimulus plan, which provides $600 per week to the unemployed for as long as four months, may keep some lower-paid hourly employees from returning to work.
Six hundred dollars per week equates to $15 per hour, and along with the state’s maximum of $275 per week in unemployment benefits, some laid off employees may be making $21 per hour without a job.
“Even when we fire back up … there’s some fear out there even if we put them out on the street, them being eligible for unemployment and the stimulus checks to boot … there won’t be an incentive at least initially to go back to work,” Lawson said. “And if there is a rush back to the beach, there could be this potential gap between the demand for the workforce to ramp up and the desire for the workforce to return.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“We were really hitting our stride and getting great diversity in job growth we’ve never seen in this county,” Lawson said. “And I think it’s mainly because of some of the investments we’ve made and some of the projects we’ve been able to recruit and attract and the economy doing well. We’re still pushing for a project at [South Alabama] Mega Site. We were having great conversations about white-collar office space and potential first building at [the Daphne Innovation and Science Center].
“One thing nobody’s talking about is how this will impact the commercial real estate market. With companies being forced to work remotely, how will they then in turn view office space and office needs? That’s one underlying factor that will have the real estate world and office world see a huge impact out of this. We’re a drive market. Social distancing can happen at the beach. We have the ability to rebound, but will the consumer come back and to what degree? That is yet to be determined.”
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