“People are kind of living in their own bubbles. And I think it leads to pretty sharp divides. Even with respect to something like wearing a mask. It's a very odd place we're finding ourselves in."
“The 2020 experience for the communities we serve has been all over the map. People are kind of living in their own bubbles this year as they work from home and have more restricted social encounters, so there's a sense of isolation. That's different within different communities, but I think it's common to a lot of them. The bubbles tend to, unfortunately, reinforce a lot of biases on everything from wearing masks to whether the economy is doing well to how much social justice issues are significant. So I think we have become more atomized, and that’s a challenge for us.
Gainesville has a fairly steady employment base because of the University of Florida and the University of Florida Health system, so people who are working at UF have done pretty well this year. And for the most part, the older community in Gainesville that is vocal, that we tend to hear from and engage with, tend to be retired university folks and they've got good health care and they've got pensions, so they're fine.
Yet Gainesville is a city with huge racial disparities, and the economic disparities and health disparities tend to follow along racial lines. Folks in disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately Black or people of color are in a much tougher place this year than folks around the university community.
Then, once you get outside of Gainesville and the suburban sprawl, there is farmland. There, out in the countryside, things become more like you'd find in any rural place around the country. In Marion County, there’s less mask wearing, but people are also, you know, outdoors and more distance from each other.
In the Gainesville metro area, to the extent that wearing masks and social distancing are liberal badges or progressive badges, most members of the Gainesville community wear them proudly. It's again what we were talking about before where people are in the bubbles and those things have gotten, you know, more constrained. And I think it leads to pretty sharp divides. Even with respect to something like wearing a mask. It's a very odd place we're finding ourselves in.
And in the midst of this backdrop, the local economy is suffering. Having the UF football season be a fraction of what it usually is has taken a hit on businesses. The Gators are playing ball, but with only one 10th of the capacity in the stadium. That’s had a huge impact on restaurant business, retail business, and the number of hotel rooms you fill up. Businesses surrounding the university, including restaurants, theaters, and the cultural life of the city are struggling.
Restaurants holding on, for the most part, although some have closed. There is more of an uneven experience with retail stores. There is a divide between the big box stores, the national chains who are the must-have retailers. They're doing great. And then there's the want-to-have retailers, like jewelry shops, candy stores, maybe higher end shoe stores, boutiques, nail salons. Those places have really struggled. And those tend to be the ones that are locally owned and have all local employees. There was the PPP money and we had some local CARES Act money that has gone to help people and local businesses to pay rent, utilities and things like that. That’s kind of running dry now. It is going to be interesting to see what happens over the winter, when things may get worse.
It’s also going to be interesting to see how the switch to online classes affects UF in the long term. We have 55,000 students who come to the University of Florida for the campus experience. Some of that's fraternities and sororities and stuff like that, yet that young life stuff can happen in a lot of different places. It doesn't have to happen in Gainesville. And so what's the trajectory on an already shifting landscape for higher education? The thought was that the University of Florida is pretty well protected from a lot of those trends because it is a state university with a fairly low tuition. Yet the university relies on a steady enrollment of, and income from, international students. A lot of graduate programs depend heavily on international students, especially engineering, math, and health science research programs.
Because of COVID, though, the students can't get in the United States now or won't come. And that's something that had preceded the pandemic because the current presidential administration has made it much tougher to get student visas as well as H1 visas allowing highly skilled people to move into the workforce. Those visas had been the real drawing cards for students coming from China and India and other places like that. Even before all this, there had been a spike in university construction in China and Australia and other places around the globe. I don’t think the United States is going to regain its position, so it'll be interesting to see what happens to some of those programs. Now, that's not a huge economic shift for Gainesville, but it probably is a challenge, longer term, for the university's aspirations to be a top five public university.” -- Doug, The Gainesville Sun #Florida