Close this search box.

Log in

Top Stories

It is two weeks before Christmas 2019, and life is good for fictional Southwest Florida resident Billy Leach. He makes good money working for a custom boat builder. He rents a great two-bedroom apartment in Fort Myers and is engaged to his girlfriend, a nurse. Billy has two airline tickets so he and his fiancée can fly to New York City over Christmas. He wants to introduce her to his family and invite them to attend the couple’s March wedding in Fort Myers.

On the other side of the world, a cluster of patients begin to experience shortness of breath and fever.

Leach doesn’t know it; in fact, no one in SWFL can understand fully how everything is going to change. Like everyone else—and we mean everyone—Leach and his fiancée will have to turn on a dime and adapt quickly to meet the challenges to nearly every aspect of their lives. 

As of Dec. 12, 2021, exactly two years after the virus announced its presence in the megacity at the confluence of the Yangtze and Han rivers, the disease had claimed the lives of 5,943 people in Collier, Charlotte, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined.

As the disease spread across the United States, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all Florida bars and restaurants to close for 30 days starting March 17, 2020, and other businesses—tailors, bowling alleys, movie theaters, manufacturing lines—also shut down. The world economy came to a near-halt as countries shut borders and ports and shipping became crippled. As of March 2020, according to Pew Research, nine in 10 people lived in countries with closed or restricted borders.

Jobs disappeared temporarily

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Regional Economic Indicators study found that the pandemic forced a quarter of all SWFL businesses to lay off at least 80% of their staff. So, where do things stand in March 2022, two years after that St. Patrick’s Day shutdown? How have Billy Leach and other SWFL workers fared after two years of COVID? 

Not as badly as other parts of the country, said Raj Srivastava, director of the Center for Supply Chain Excellence at FGCU. “Southwest Florida was fortunate that it never shut down completely like other parts of the country. It was able to partially open up earlier,” he says.

Allison Chavez of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association says hotel occupancy rates are recovering. “Southwest Florida hospitality establishments … are continuing to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chavez says. “The Tourist Development Councils for Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties show hotel occupancy rates have exceeded previous years.”

The latest figures from FGCU’s Regional Economic Indicators show that monthly taxable sales of the five-county region had rebounded to $3.5 billion a month by December 2021, a vast improvement from the $1.5 billion in taxable sales in April 2020 at the depth of the shutdown.

The workforce after COVID

According to FGCU’s economic study, unemployment fell in half—from 8.8% to 4.2%—in one year ending June 2021. The economy also improved. “Most economic indicators are now reaching or surpassing the one-year mark from April 2020, which represented the peak of the COVID-19 economic impact.”

Waiters, bartenders, managers and hotel and motel staff who lost their jobs relied on government stimulus checks and a Florida “Way to Go” debit card—if they could ever get onto the oft-crashing Florida unemployment benefits website. The good news is, they are working again. Tourism revenue is 61% higher in Southwest Florida now than September 2019, four months before the first Americans got sick with the mystery virus.

The economic rebound is especially strong in Naples, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s September 2021 report. The Naples area ranked No. 1 in private sector year-over-year job growth rate compared to all metro areas in the state. The Naples area labor force in August 2021 increased by 14,364 over the year, an 8.4% increase. 

The industries gaining the most jobs over the year include professional and business services, increasing by 3,000 jobs, and leisure and hospitality, increasing by 2,100 jobs.

Personal savings in SWFL

Savings are up, too, a sign of belt-tightening as a wall against future economic downturns. “Those with jobs didn’t know what the future would look like; if they had available money, they put it in savings,” says Victor Claar, an economist at FGCU. “They were a lot more serious about retiring their debt, especially credit card debt. By late spring 2020, people were saving a third of what they were earning; it was one of the best saving rates we’ve seen.”

Home sales, new construction returning

Housing experts say new home construction and the sale of existing homes did well during the pandemic and will continue to increase.

Residential real estate took a big hit in March 2020: In Lee County, active listings were down 22.6% for single-family homes and down 23.4% for condos and townhomes.

Many started buying homes again after 2020 ended. The National Association of Realtors says Collier County saw a 4.6% surge in single-family home sales in 2021. The median price of homes also rose 10.2%. 

For perspective, NAR reports existing-home sales throughout Southwest Florida grew overall by 5.6% from 2019 to 2020, and by 20% during the early months of 2021. 

New home construction rebounded, too. The Southwest Florida coastal counties issued 1,906 single-family building permits in June 2021, an increase of 1,003 permits, or 111%, over June 2020 and up 435 permits, or 30%, from May 2021.

It’s not all good news, though; not everyone was willing to sell. Realtor Active listings for the coastal counties were down in June 2021, falling 74% from June 2020. However, Southwest Florida led the nation in vacation home sales from January to April 2021. The NAR reports vacation home sales shot up 57.2% throughout the pandemic. Lee County led the pack in vacation home sales, where second homes make up 23% of the county’s housing stock.

Commercial construction defies gravity

COVID was no dealbreaker for companies that built new headquarters and shipping facilities along the Alico Road corridor in Fort Myers. Seagate, NeoGenomics Laboratories, Rice Insulation & Glass, Scotlynn USA Division and White Cap Supply are just a few of the entities anchoring near Interstate 75 and Southwest Florida International Airport, where their trucks easily can enter I-75 and their expertise can reach foreign capitals.

John Talmage, director of the Lee County Economic Development Office, put it this way: “There are about 40 projects under construction, which represents about 8,500 jobs,” he says. “Future growth is expected to focus on warehousing and distribution, life sciences, as well as retail and office spaces.”

Broken supply chain slows manufacturing

Billy Leach works for one of several luxury boat and yacht manufacturers in Southwest Florida, so his job—like others in manufacturing in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties—has not returned to full-time, pre-COVID production levels. That’s because raw materials, including the elements used in manufacturing semiconductors, are tougher to obtain. 

“COVID exposed all the weaknesses in the supply chain,” Srivastava says. Sick workers and work slowdowns made it harder for chip-manufacturing countries including Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States to obtain raw materials for semiconductors used in all kinds of manufacturing processes. “But Southwest Florida has not seen a huge impact on manufacturing,” Srivastava says. “Companies have been able to run their operations without semiconductors.”

As for boats, from outboard to luxury yachts, semiconductors regulate engine pressure, fuel flow and the marine electronics upon which bass fisherman and saltwater anglers rely. With fewer new boats being built, prices for used boats hit the roof.

“It’s not just silicon, either,” Srivastava says. “Aluminum, steel and the material used to make the captain’s chairs also are in short supply.” 

Permanent changes to economy

How has life changed for us in Southwest Florida? We again return to Billy Leach, whose plans had to change as the economy temporarily slowed to a crawl.

Billy’s two-bedroom apartment in Fort Myers cost him $1,328 a month at the time of DeSantis’ order; rent in Florida for the same two-bedroom apartment was $1,670 a year later, a 25.7% increase, according to 

Srivastava said units in Naples and Fort Myers have seen a 20% to 30% rise in rent.

Southwest Florida overall saw moderate increases in prices for both housing (4.5% increase in October 2021 over October 2020) and other goods and services (4.4% increase), according to Consumer Price Index figures in the Southwest Florida Regional Economic Indicators, July 2021.

As for Billy’s airline tickets, the U.S. Department of Transportation says that a pair of airline tickets to New York City from Fort Myers cost $240 one way in March 2020. COVID brought those airfares down to less than $100 one way in December 2021; airlines predicted they’d charge $187 one way starting in March 2022, according to one domestic airline’s website.

Once in New York City for Christmas 2019, Billy rented a car at a cost of $74 a day. By spring 2020, air travel and the rental car industry had collapsed, and both have had to crawl back. 

“Passenger air got super cheap, so lots of rental car companies, including Hertz, liquidated their inventory in May of 2020. They needed cash to pay off debt obligations … that’s a model for what happened in other industries in Southwest Florida,” Srivastava says. 

Rental car rates climbed again as demand outstripped available cars, reported The New York Times. At its peak in June 2021, rental cars cost an average $129 a day. By October 2021, they had dropped to an average $74 a day. In December 2021, New York City rental cars were advertised at $10.95 a day but the average was closer to $25 to $65 per day.

High gas affects everyone

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Floridians paid an average of $2.51 per gallon as COVID hit. As society shut down, gas prices dove; in November 2020, the same gallon of gas cost $1.97. In December 2021, motorists in Fort Myers paid $3.26 a gallon, $1.29 more per gallon since a year ago last November. It’s also the highest since 2014. So, what happened?

Blame the oil-producing nations, Claar says. They are keeping prices high to offset profit losses when travel became restricted globally.

Canadians and Europeans are back

In November 2021, the United States and Canada reopened their border, allowing our northern snowbirds to return again. The United States also opened its borders to EU visitors in November.

Southwest Florida International Airport remains No. 1 in the nation for airport passenger recovery following the start of the global pandemic in March 2020, according to the Lee County Port Authority. The airport filled out the rest of 2021 with the following passenger figures: September, 551,041 passengers; October, 769,524 passengers; in November, 986,908 passengers, and in December, 1,085,569 passengers for a total of 10,322,434 passengers for 2021, a 1% increase over 2019.

“December 2021 was the busiest December in the 39-year history of the airport, and we reached a new annual traffic record of more than 10.3 million passengers,” said Ben Siegel, CPA, C.M., executive director of the Lee County Port Authority.

“All of this is going to right itself,” Claar says. “As long as we don’t have any more dangerous variants … I’m confident we’re going to start seeing normalization in the next six months to a year.”

Hospitals survive critical period

Of all the business sectors in Southwest Florida that had to meet the challenge of COVID-19, hospitals were on the front line. They found their resources immediately strained, their employees overworked and themselves legally and politically exposed.

In September 2020, Lee Health announced that it was freezing salaries and cutting benefits for all its 13,500 employees in 2021. The reason: A $20 million financial shortfall caused by caring for so many patients simultaneously while learning how to treat the thing on the fly.

Move forward to October 2021, a year later, and Lee Health was past its crisis, thanks to vaccines, better treatment protocols, increased elective surgeries and COVID-19 bailout money. It was now passing out $1,500 bonuses to employees who did not receive wage increases in 2020. 

But any celebration was short-lived. In November, the omicron variant began to strain hospital finances and resources again. 

Lee Health reported on Jan. 19 it had 342 COVID-19 patients isolated in its hospitals, 10 of which were in Golisano Children’s Hospital. NCH Healthcare System reported at least 135 patients had tested positive for the virus on one day in mid-January. Of those, 11 were in critical care. Three patients were on ventilators, hospital officials reported.

NCH, which had returned to performing elective surgeries after the Delta variant dissipated, announced in mid-January that it was again postponing elective surgeries to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. Lee Health also restarted its free urgent care telehealth visits through Lee Telehealth.

The nonprofit NCH also lost money during COVID, but it had been operating at a loss in 2018, when it reported losing $2,935,317. Its 2019 financial report showed an increase in assets at $9,695,249 and in 2020—the year of COVID-19—NCH reported a loss of $2,366,137.

By 2021, things also were improving at NCH. According to financial statements for the first nine months of the year ending June 30, it had net patient revenue of $540.7 million, up from $487 million for the same period in 2020, according to filings with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. 

The two systems also joined forces during the pandemic to convince the public to donate money to their battle against the virus. The program, called “SWFL Stronger Together” campaign, raised a lot of money in donations. Gifts to the fund will provide critical resources, equipment and supplies: additional ventilators, protective gear, mobile units, employee relief and more.

What does the future look like in SWFL?

Cautious optimism—hopefully by the time you read this, the omicron wave will have receded, and as more Americans are vaccinated and progress is made on creation and distribution of medical countermeasures, we’ll be on the way to putting COVID truly behind us.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

Don't Miss

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Please note that article corrections should be submitted for grammar or syntax issues.

If you have other concerns about the content of this article, please submit a news tip.