Orange County, Florida, mayor warns the 'pandemic is raging'

A worker takes a guest's temperature at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando earlier this month. COVID-19 numbers are surging in the region.
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As officials in tourism-dependent Orange County, Florida, prepare for a resurgence of tourism as attractions reopen, they are also dealing with a surge of COVID-19 cases.

More than 109,000 of Orange County's 1.4 million residents have been tested, or just under 8%. In the last two weeks, the total positive test rate for COVID-19 has been 9.34%.

As the county continues to reopen its economy in phases, the last 14 days have seen triple-digit daily increases in positive cases, county Mayor Jerry Demings said Tuesday.

County officials have tough words for people who violate health requirements imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory disease it causes.

"If we don't make an adjustment we're headed for a calamity here," Demings said, adding that the "pandemic is raging."

If there's a sense that Orange County has lost control of the outbreak, "we can't get people back visiting here,” he said. The county, with its seat in Orlando, is home to Walt Disney World and other massive theme parks, and the nation's second-largest convention center.

In Orange County as of Tuesday, 5,502 people had tested positive for COVID-19, 52 people had died from the disease, with the median age of those affected at 34.

On Monday, the county reported that 49.7% of its COVID-19 cases for the entire pandemic had been confirmed within the previous two weeks, including a single-day record of 437 positive cases Saturday.

On June 18, Demings signed an executive order requiring every person working, living, visiting or doing business in Orange County to wear a facial covering while in any public place.

It's one thing to enact rules and another to have them followed.

On Monday, the liquor license of a popular bar near the Orlando-based University of Central Florida was suspended for failing to follow the social distancing requirements, including limiting seating to 50% capacity. After visiting the bar, 28 customers and 13 employees tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

If there's a sense that Orange County has lost control of the outbreak with a tourism-based economy, "we can't get people back visiting here,” said Mayor Jerry Demings.

To support local businesses, Orange County is offering loans, personal protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizer. A family assistance program has been created that includes a one-time payment of $1,000 per household affected by the outbreak and funding for social service agencies.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Commission began planning for the future with programs to diversify the region's economy in the wake of COVID-19, by supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs and planning to move forward with an expansion at the Orange County Convention Center that was in the works before the pandemic.

The STEM program would cost $240,000 for first year, an amount already budgeted. It includes classroom and homeschool programs as well as sponsoring the International Collegiate Programming Competition and the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, two major university programs that could "put the county on the map," said Andrea Wesser-Brawner, Innovation & Emerging Technology Officer.

Commissioners will consider the program's budget at their July 7 meeting.

Officials with the Orange County Convention Center, the second-largest facility of its kind in the country, recommended that the county finish designing and planning for two major expansion plans, then constructing the projects in phases because tourist development tax collections have plummeted due to the viral outbreak.

The project's master plan calls for adding 200,000 square feet of exhibit space to the multipurpose venue in the center's south building, adding 60,000 square feet of meeting space and an 80,000-square-foot ballroom to the grand concourse in the north-south building, and creating a connector between the north and south concourses.

"We feel we're in a real good place with the timing of this expansion," said Mark Tester, the convention center's executive director. "The desire and need to meet face-to-face has not diminished and frankly I think there is a lot of pent-up demand."

Tester said the timing of the plan as it relates to COVID-19 is good because the additional space would allow for social distancing.

The convention center hasn't held an event or exhibit since mid-March, and many events were canceled, scaled back, or postponed as the state imposed stay-at-home orders for non-essential workers.

Venues such as the convention center, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld closed in mid-March to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Universal Orlando and SeaWorld have reopened, while Disney plans to begin reopening July 11.

The convention center plans to hold a series of functions this summer starting with junior volleyball championships July 14. Numerous conventions were rescheduled, including the AmCon Advanced Design & Manufacturing Expo now set for Sept. 2-3. It was originally to be held March 31-April 1.

The pre-coronavirus budget plan for the $605 million convention center expansion was to cash fund a portion and finance a portion, said Orange County Fiscal and Business Services Division Manager Fred Winterkamp. The convention center's debt is serviced with most of the county's 6% tourist development tax on hotels and other short-term accommodations.

Winterkamp said reserves are at $82.2 million, the mandated amount for outstanding convention center debt, while renewal and replacement reserves are at $60.9 million. Excess reserve accounts hold $175.7 million, for a total amount in reserve of $318.8 million.

"That's why we maintain our credit ratings," Winterkamp said. "That's why we have the option to take a look at this [expansion] in the most fiscally prudent way possible."

Orange County has about $800 million of outstanding bonds secured by TDT revenues for the convention center's past expansion and improvements. The debt is rated AA by Fitch Ratings, Aa2 by Moody's Investors Service, and AA-minus by S&P Global Ratings.

Fitch placed all of its rated U.S. local government debt backed by hotel and tourism-related tax revenues on Rating Watch Negative in April. S&P assigned a negative outlook in April to the entire sector, including the Orange County bonds. Moody's outlook remains stable.

Winterkamp said the county's ample cash reserves will help offset a deep decline in TDT revenue caused by the impact of COVID-19. In March, TDT revenue declined by 56.5% when theme parks closed.

TDT revenues plummeted by 97% to $765,900 in April compared with the same month a year ago, the largest decrease since the county began collecting the levy in 1992. Orange County had budgeted to receive $26.62 million.

Moody's projects that the county will weather the temporary halt to tourism caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

“Recovery in the travel and tourism sectors will likely be protracted, but despite the county's heavy reliance on tourism, its ample financial reserves and strong management will mitigate the adverse economic effects of the pandemic,” Moody's analyst Valentina Gomez said in a comment June 11.

TDT revenues can only be used for debt service on TDT bonds or tourism-related expenses, so shortfalls do not affect the county's general fund budget, Gomez said.

On a positive note, Gomez said, Universal Orlando, which employs 27,000 workers, reopened June 5. Disney has 75,000 workers, and is the largest employer in the county. Both are the two largest property taxpayers, accounting for a combined 10.6% of total assessed property values.

Winterkamp said TDT revenue collections had been doing well since the beginning of the Oct. 1 fiscal year, but then came COVID-19.

The county has sufficient funds to pay outstanding obligations and will have the ability to issue bonds as outstanding debt matures, he said, adding that commissioners in May passed a resolution so that when bond capacity becomes available debt can be issued to reimburse the county for expenses related to the expansion.

Mask-wearing guests at the SeaWorld amusement park in Orlando on June 11.

Tester said the convention center will be the first major facility of its kind to reopen and has a "tremendous reputation in the marketplace."

However, he said, doing all of the expansion projects at the same time "would be problematic," and can't be pursued at this time. He recommended using cash to complete design work, which is at 30%, and then proceeding with completion of the multipurpose venue and connector project first.

The schedule for the expansion work depends on when TDT revenues stabilize and move to an upward trend, Winterkamp said.

"We are modeling a five-year recovery, five years to get back to where we were last year," he said.

Recovery from the recession caused by the virus may depend on finding a way to slow its spread, a move that would make foreign visitors more comfortable about flying into the Sunshine State.

On Monday, Florida surpassed 100,000 positive cases statewide, and is among the southern and western states seeing a big surge in the disease.

On Tuesday another 3,289 confirmed cases were added for a statewide total of 103,503. Some 3,238 people have died from the disease. Some of the jump in cases is due to the lag in reporting results.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who rarely wears a face mask despite a state advisory to do so, has said he won't close the state down again and he won't issue a statewide mandate on face coverings. Some counties and cities across the state have imposed the requirement.

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