Local businesses coping with virus better than other parts of state

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Posted July 6, 2020 | By Bill Thompson

Kevin Sheilley, the president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership speaks during a Meet and Greet at the Brick City Center For The Arts on Southwest Broadway Street in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The event was hosted by the Ocala Gazette to welcome Sandra Wilson, the new City Manager and Ire Bethea, the newly elected member of the Ocala City Council. The Ocala Gazette will publish their first printed edition on Monday, July 6. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

Back in May the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership released a survey outlining how COVID-19 had affected its member businesses.

Overall, 199 businesses responded, with 86 percent of them based in Ocala. Here are some of the key results:

Just 12.5 percent of those sampled indicated customer demand had remained steady or actually increased as the coronavirus spread.

Fifty-one percent reported that sales revenue had plunged by 50 percent or more.

About a third said they had laid off at least 20 percent of their workers, with 17 percent – or roughly half this group – saying they slashed staff by 80 percent or more.

Forty-five percent stated they had reduced employees’ hours by at least 20 percent, with a strong plurality – 19 percent – reporting they cut hours for 80 percent of their workers.

Still, the report did contain some good news.

Sixty percent believed the adverse effects of the virus would be temporary, compared to 19 percent who thought they would be permanent. And 86 percent reported that neither they nor their employees had shown symptoms of COVID-19.

Now, nearly two months later, Kevin Sheilley, the CEP’s president and CEO, says Ocala’s business community has weathered the virus fairly well under the circumstances.

“All in all, our businesses feel pretty good about the state of the local economy because the key sectors continue to be driving forward as they were,” he said.

One metric to consider: the local unemployment rate.

The latest figures pegged the community’s jobless rate at 11.7 percent, compared to 14.5 percent for Florida as a whole.

As he told the County Commission in May when he presented the survey, Sheilley noted some sectors of the economy — such as manufacturing and logistics companies — “have done very well for this period.”

“They are really set up to do well in downturns, and so they are strong and remain strong,” he said. He cited Auto Zone, FedEx and Signature Brands as local firms that have thrived, because people did more of their own repair work, shipped more goods and cooked at home more.

“The real big pieces of our economy are strong,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have concerns for smaller businesses, but I think all in all, when you look at our unemployment rate, when you talk to realtors, when we talk to construction (companies), when we talk to even a number of our restaurants, they’re feeling pretty good about things.”

Sheilley also noted that in addition to smaller companies calling workers back, new jobs are on the horizon, with Dollar Tree now hiring for its distribution center, and Amazon moving to set up shop in Marion County.

After weeks of lockdown, and renewed concerns about a new wave of COVID-19, people yearn for normalcy again, Sheilley added.

But, he said, the business community largely thinks the reopening pace is “about right.”

The main concern, however, is whether the community will be able to adapt a local revitalization scheme set by the City Council, the County Commission and the county Health Department — all of whom have done a good job managing the virus reaction – or have to live with a “one-stop” approach, Sheilley said.

But as the Ocala/Marion County business community yearns to reopen fully, county public health officials are concerned about a fresh increase in COVID-19 positive tests, particularly among younger people.

“We’re just not adhering to the social distancing,” Mark Lander, administrator of the Marion County Health Department, said during a recent interview with the Gazette.

“Even opening back up Florida, it was never the intent not to continue social distancing,” Lander added.

“It was open back up cautiously, and understand it’s not just ‘We’re open, go back to business,’ but ‘It’s open and continue to social distance, continue to use good mitigation practices, avoid large crowds … (and) if you can’t social distance, have a mask on.’ … Larger social interactions with less mitigation practices result in the potential spread of the virus.”

“We can open up safely,” Lander added, “but you have to adhere to that message” about proper risk management, incrementally increasing numbers of customers and continuing mitigation practices.

“It’s awfully hard to judge the effectiveness of opening back up if you’re not adhering to those guidelines.”

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