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UPDATED: COVID-19 Brings Economic Uncertainty To Panama City Beach Service Workers

Valerie Crowder

Like many servers in Panama City Beach, Naddeah Clinton earns the most money during the busy spring and summer months, when tourists flock to the area. But statewide efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus could mean fewer customers, she said. 


“If we were to go and shut the restaurants down, we would be broke,” she said. “We’re broke now, but we’d be real broke.”


On Friday, Gov. Ron Desantis signed an executive order forcing all restaurants to close their doors to dine-in customers. This could make it more difficult for servers to pay their bills, Clinton said.  “If people are not coming into eat, we’re not getting tips,” she said.


Like many others, she says she’s concerned about people catching the virus. But she’s especially worried about how she’s going to afford basic necessities as more people follow federal guidelines to stay at home as much as possible, Clinton said.


“I hope they do a rent freeze,” she said, adding she needs to earn at least $800 in the next two weeks. “That’s just base rent. That’s not electric and phone bill and water and your other household essentials.”


For local small business owners in the popular tourist town, they’re concerned about how they’re going to pay their employees if their bottom line takes a hit. 


“If my business drops fifty percent, obviously, then we have to worry about how we’re going to keep other people employed,” said David Humphreys, owner of the Sandbar Seafood and BBQ Joint, where Naddeah Clinton works. “But that remains to be seen, so we’ll stay optimistic and hope that it works out.” 


Humphreys was among several other small business owners who attended a Panama City Beach City Council meeting on Tuesday to urge their elected officials to consider the local economy when deciding how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. 


“Let’s not put ourselves in a depression,” Humphreys told council members, adding that public safety is still important. 


At his restaurant, he said he’s working to do his part to curb the spread of the virus. “We’re going to comply with the governor’s orders,” he said. “We’re already wiping stuff down, sanitizing stuff hourly and even more often in some cases.”


Still, the 40-50 people he employs are on his mind right now, too, he said. 


“Those people are coming to me every night, worried about what’s going to happen to their job,” he said. “They can’t afford to miss two days of work, much less anything worse than that. I’m just concerned that we may take this and turn it into a financial crisis.”


Between 15,000 and 17,000 hospitality and leisure workers were employed in Panama City Beach and the surrounding towns in the spring and summer months before Hurricane Michael. 


City Manager Tony O’Rourke says the tourism industry is the “lifeblood” of the local economy. 


“We don’t create widgets or cars - we service tourists,” he said. “We’re a tourist destination, tourist economy, tourist-based community.”


Local utility companies are offering some relief to residents who can’t afford to pay their bills. Gulf Power, which serves more than 46,000 customers in the region, won’t disconnect any services through the end of March. And all public water and sewer services in the county are suspending disconnections for at least 30 days. 


At the federal level, the Trump administration and Senate Republicans have crafted a bill that would give cash payments of up to $1,200 per taxpayer and up to $2,400 for married couples filing jointly.  Individuals who earn more than $99,000 and couples with incomes above $198,000 wouldn’t be eligible. And taxpayers who earn less than $2,500 would receive $600 per individual or $1,200 per couple. 


In 2018, there were nearly 3 million servers employed nationwide, and more than 200,000 of them worked in Florida, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall number of food and beverage service workers employed nationwide was even higher at roughly 5.4 million workers.


Naddeah Clinton, who waits tables full-time, says she worries her industry will take the biggest hit. 


“We’re going to need the biggest bailout because we work on tips.  So, if people are not coming into eat, we’re not getting tips,” she said. “We’re not getting money.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.