Coronavirus hits Florida economy in threat to Trump's re-election hopes
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[March 18, 2020]
By Saundra Amrhein and Jason Lange
KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) - Since the
coronavirus outbreak hit Florida this month, Uber driver Nelson Aliaga
has lost a third of his business.
But by dismissing for weeks the danger posed by the virus, President
Donald Trump did not respond quickly enough to the crisis, said Aliaga,
a Republican who voted for Trump in 2016.
Aliaga, who makes a living shuttling tourists around the Orlando area,
is now leaning toward voting for Joe Biden in the November presidential
election, if the former vice president becomes the Democratic nominee.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not going to vote for him," Aliaga said of Trump as
he stood outside a polling station near Orlando as his son, a Democrat,
voted in Tuesday's Democratic nominating contest. Biden won the state in
a landslide victory over Senator Bernie Sanders. [nL1N2BA0AG]
The health crisis that has shut down schools, restaurants and gatherings
across the country is still in its early days, and experts are
struggling to understand how long the outbreak will go on for or whether
the unprecedented national lockdown will contain it.
But Florida, an important political battleground that Trump won by just
1.2 percentage points over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016,
is already taking an outsized economic hit, an unwelcome twist for the
president who's betting on winning the state to propel his re-election.
The state's reliance on service jobs from tourism to financial services
and its large elderly population will make it among the states hardest
hit by the crisis, according to Wall Street research firm Moody's
Analytics, which estimated the state could lose at least 135,000 jobs
this year as a result.
No other state has a higher concentration of service sector jobs, Labor
Department data shows, while one in five Floridians are age 65 and
older, the most vulnerable age group to the coronavirus, compared with
one in six nationally.
The Orlando area is particularly hard hit as amusement parks like Disney
World have shut while hotels, restaurants and movie theaters are also
closing. Streets of gift shops were largely empty on Tuesday.
Interviews with more than a dozen people in the Orlando area on Tuesday,
as well as a Reuters/Ipsos national poll, showed many still see the
health crisis through the lens of their political affiliation, with
Democrats critical of Trump's handling of it while Republicans believe
it is overblown. [nL1N2BA2SW]
"I think it's the Democrats and mainstream media," said Lynn Messersmith,
50, of St. Cloud, Florida.
But Trump allies in and out of the White House worry the still-unfolding
economic fallout will undermine what was once seen as the president's
biggest strength. How he handles the challenge will determine whether he
will win another four-year term, they say.
"The Trump campaign and its allies would love to be talking about a
great economy and 401(k)s but that’s hard to do right now," a Republican
pollster said on condition of anonymity. "We don’t know whether this is
a short, sharp blip or long downturn. The answer to that question is
[to top of second column]
A voting booth is seen during the Democratic presidential primary
election at a polling center in Miami, Florida, U.S. March 17, 2020.
Trump came under fire for initially downplaying the dangers of the
coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness and to
date has killed at least 109 Americans and nearly 8,000 globally. At
least six have died in Florida.
This week, Trump has been more active, issuing guidance that
Americans avoid crowds and pressing for a $1 trillion stimulus
package. [nL1N2BA2Y2] Trump has said the sweeping travel
restrictions he has ordered are saving lives.
"Nobody is sugarcoating it," said a senior administration official.
"It sunk into the president that this was going to be in our lives
for a while."
SCRAPING BY ON SAVINGS
In the city of Kissimmee, just south of Orlando, the coronavirus
outbreak has been a blow to the travel agency run by Leila Coe, who
is now scraping by on her savings. Bookings for food and wine tours
dried up three weeks ago.
A former independent who registered as a Democrat in February before
the panic set in over the coronavirus, Coe is focused on voting
Trump out of office.
"I just hate Trump," said Coe, who voted for Biden on Tuesday, the
Democratic frontrunner, saying he stands a better chance against
Trump than Sanders.
The Democratic party in Florida is targeting the Orlando area as a
place to attract new voters. The metro area skews Democratic but
voter participation is low there, said Juan Peñalosa, the state
party's executive director.
Florida Republican strategist Alex Patton said party officials were
trying to determine how the health crisis could change politics or
campaigning but said Trump's initial playing down of it and the
mounting economic toll could cost him in November.
The virus has forced Trump to set aside his re-election campaign.
His signature rallies are canceled out of concern about spreading
the virus, as are fundraising events. A Las Vegas fundraiser planned
but canceled last weekend might have raised $10 million.
A Trump campaign official said the campaign is effectively on pause.
“Basically, all their energy is going to get their hands around this
(Reporting by Saundra Amrhein in Kissimmee, Florida and Jason Lange,
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and by Jarrett
Renshaw; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Robert Birsel)
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