POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Polk County’s working population has suffered the most from the coronavirus pandemic in Tampa Bay, new figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity show.
Polk County’s unemployment rate rose five points from April to May to 19.1%, according to the state report.
Hillsborough County’s unemployment rate was at 12.6% in May. Pinellas County’s rate is higher at 13.4%.
“I was surprised and disappointed with that kind of a number,” said Mianne Nelson, Polk County’s director of communications.
For people who lost income due to COVID-19-related shutdowns, Polk County still has half its Cares Act funding available to help people pay their bills.
Polk Cares 2020 has $18 million left to allocate, Nelson said.
“We are seeing most of our applications coming from folks in the eastern side of Polk County, folks that have a tourist-related, Disney, Universal, hotel-related employer,” said Nelson.
Polk County’s economy relies heavily on sports-related visitors and theme park tourists.
May numbers do not reflect theme parks, including LEGOLAND Florida, Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld, reopening in June.
In May, Polk County had the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the state, behind only the three Orlando-area counties.
Osceola County, which is right next to Polk County, had an unemployment rate of 31.1%.
“The good news is we’re not as bad as our surrounding counties. The bad news is it’s at 19%,” said Mark Jackson, director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing.
Since early March, he has been working on a three-pronged coronavirus economic recovery plan which includes research, a safety plan and a marketing plan.
“What’s our COVID-19 marketing plan? We had to change our entire marketing plan to address some of these fears, concerns, so on and so forth,” he said.
Jackson, though, finds hope in what he calls “travel indicators.”
There are more people staying in hotels, eating out and attending events.
In mid-June, the county hosted several sports tournaments.
“Our occupancy was only down 9.3%, compared to the same period last year. That’s a 22.3% better performance than the average occupancy level in April,” he explained.
Jackson tells 8 On Your Side, there are more searches on websites and social media traffic is up.
“We have these indicators of travel that are critically important signals that the economy is coming back. It’s coming back slowly but it is coming back,” he said.
Vacation rental home bookings are looking positive for July and August, he said.
To learn more about how to access financial aid from Polk Cares 2020, visit https://www.polk-county.net/polk-cares-2020.
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