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Business Researchers Examine Real-Time Data in Tampa Bay COVID-19 Economy

By Keith Morelli

Business Researchers Weigh In on Tampa Bay Economic Forecast

TAMPA (April 22, 2020) -- Online searches for fancy downtown restaurants have dropped to nearly zero while inquiries about Vitamin C, immunity boosters – and treadmills – have skyrocketed over the past month. And toilet paper? It seems to be making, or soon will make, a come-back at local grocery stores.

Using data from Google searches, researchers with the USF Muma College of Business are painting a real-time picture of how COVID-19 is impacting the Tampa Bay region. The topics include concern over the disease, employment, food and essential supplies, travel and hospitality industry demand and normal retail commerce.

The project, conducted in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Partnership, is looking extensively at Google searches across many specific categories that are of interest to the economy.

“Real-time data from Google search provides a useful take on what’s happening in our economy in these challenging times. By identifying many distinct categories to look at we are able to tell a broader story as it plays out in real time,” Balaji Padmanabhan, a professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department and director of the college’s Center for Analytics and Creativity, said in the report.

“Of interest to the group here are not these ‘snapshot findings’ alone,” he said, “but whether these numbers carry some sort of meaning when things clearly start ticking up for our region.”

On Disease Concerns:

The report found that concern about the virus among Tampa Bay residents ranked below other areas of the state, including West Palm Beach, and may be attributed to a flatter curve, or a more gradual increase of COVID-19 reported cases, here.

Researchers found that over the first week of April, (the number of) new cases came down day-over-day for the first time and the search trend may have reflected this in the first half of April.

“Yet, around this time, Florida crossed 10,000 cases and on April 3 the [federal government] urged all Americans to wear face masks when going out,” the report said. “The searches in Florida for face masks were already showing an exponential increase before that date and continues to be high.

“This reflects a combination of concern and a possible desire to comply with state and federal guidelines on social distancing.”

On Unemployment:

The report found that as the traditional economy takes a downturn, there is interest in jobs where people can work from home. One of the trending searches last week was for “online jobs,” which has seen increasing interest in Florida in the last six weeks as might be expected.

“This could be an opportunity to provide help, possibly by exploring ways to create jobs for those working from home,” the report said, “explicitly as a way to mitigate the economic downturn and consequences due to the stay-at-home orders.”

On the Need for Food and Essential Supplies:

Real-time data concerning “the infamous toilet-paper-near-me” battle that has played out all over the country, was also examined.

“The Tampa Bay area has clearly been stocking up on this essential item, which in part explains why it is still hard to see on the shelves (the peak here interestingly coincides with the peak in the search for coronavirus testing sites),” the report said. “The fact that we are close to a six-week low in this signal is a good sign, and …you will finally be able to find it on the shelves soon.”

Food insecurity is growing in the United States and in Florida during this crisis as unemployment numbers are at levels not seen in the recent past, the report said. Real-time data indicates that interest in searches for “food banks” over the last year within Florida has peaked this month.

“Fort Myers, in particular, appears the worst hit within the state in this metric, and is also a region with some of the highest unemployment-related searches,” the report said. “While data suggests that citizens and businesses are starting to help with contributions in cash and kind, more of these might be needed in the short-term to handle this unusually large demand.”

Researchers also found a spike in the need for help in evictions and rent assistance matters by looking at real-time Google activity.

On Travel and Hospitality Industry Demand:         

The industries that have been hit particularly hard in Florida include travel and hospitality. According to the number of Google searches for “downtown” restaurants in the Tampa Bay region, people continued to eat out until the middle of March.

“The sharp drop commences on March 15 and is at an all-time low, near zero,” the report said. “As the phased recovery process starts, this will give us some insights into when customers actually start doing things such as going out to eat in the popular downtown hotspots.”

Google searches for “things to do in Florida” have been near zero over the past two weeks, the report said. “The fact that most of these searches happen in Florida reflects the pattern of tourists who often first come into the state and then search for things to do,” the report said. “Clearly, there are few who are now in the state for this reason. However, as things recover, this is also a possible early signal that can be monitored.”

And there’s this: take-out food or food deliveries. Searches for those services are at an all-time high in Florida. “Many of the local restaurants are indeed trying to improvise and operate in a lean manner as a take-out service,” the report said. ”Demand appears to be high, but for most will not compensate for the loss in the regular dine-in business.”

On Normal Retail Commerce:

Retail commerce is primarily essentials, e-commerce and value-driven during the pandemic as people have been kept indoors, the report said. Discounters and budget stores in particular will likely come out even stronger after the recovery. The data is showing that not only are people not shopping in traditional stores, when they do they likely favor discounters during the economically harder times.

“People are also buying (online) in interesting new categories, where there is unusually higher demand,” the report said. “In addition to Vitamin C, immunity boosters and other health-related purchases that are seeing significantly higher interest, purchases of exercise equipment for homes have increased to levels not typically seen at this time of the year due in large part to an extended stay-at-home period for most people.

“A lot of people are buying treadmills in the Tampa Bay and West Palm Beach areas.”