“These past four months have been a time of great challenge, but we’re fortunate to live in a resilient community,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in a virtual State of the County address Friday, June 26. “The COVID-19 virus continues to live among us, and we’re learning how to cope and live with it.”
Demings addressed the issues taking place in Orange County, but most of the emphasis was on the coronavirus pandemic.
“Testing of our residents remains a priority,” he said.
Demings, who has four decades of experience in crisis management, said “drastic measures” were needed to reverse the virus’ surge in the community. He declared a countywide state of emergency and a stay-at-home order to slow the spread.
This ultimately caused businesses to close — temporarily and permanently — or scale back on the number of employees, and the unemployment rate spiked to 16.5%. The county saw a continual decline in tourist development tax dollars — 30 conventions were canceled at the Orange County Convention Center, professional sports teams stopped playing in crowded venues, residents weren’t physically shopping.
Nearly 1,400 county employees began working from home. Every aspect of government work changed overnight, he said.
“But I’m expecting it to turn around as businesses start reopening,” Demings said.
“The coronavirus pandemic fueled uncertainty, and our role as county leaders was to mitigate this temporary disruption,” he said.
Orange County Government went into overdrive, he said, to help residents who lost their jobs.
“Orange County was the first to offer crisis assistance to residents to bridge the gap until state or federal assistance was available,” Demings said. “We didn’t stop there. Orange County was among the first counties in Florida to receive $243 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. We allocated $142 million in funding to provide much-needed assistance to individuals, families and businesses hit hard by the pandemic. We are distributing $10,000 grants to 6,500 eligible small businesses and plan on assisting 30,000 eligible households with $1,000.”
To help keep down the positive number of COVID-19 cases, county employees handed out 5.5 million free masks and 1.1 million free bottles of hand sanitizer.
The Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force was created to formulate a plan for reopening businesses. Fifty residents, businessmen and businesswomen began meeting almost daily to come up with guidelines and a plan to reopen the county that was “both sensible and safe,” he said.
“The work of the task force was astonishing,” Demings said.
The task force approved the detailed reopening plans for SeaWorld, Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World theme parks, as well as 15 smaller entertainment businesses; and it devised the three-phase reopening plan for the rest of the county.
Another step in getting the county and state healthy again is through a regional campaign launched Friday called Safer Stronger Together. Demings said multiple Central Florida counties have embraced the campaign to provide a clear and consistent message for the community to unite for safety.
“Visit Orlando and Orlando Economic Partnership would spearhead campaign efforts,” he said. “As part of the process, we consulted with an advisory team of over 100 local media, business, healthcare and community leaders. The campaign … will be a call to action to each resident and business to do their part in making our community safer from COVID-19.”
A new website, DoYourPartOrl.com, is launching, as well.
To foster a united community, Demings established the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Initiative and the Candid Conversation on Police Reform, both of which “became necessary as America and our community grappled with demands for police reform,” he said.
“Diversity, inclusion and collaboration — that makes us who we are,” he said. “From the Dragon Parade to Fusion Fest to Black History Month to Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize the contributions and the rich culture of our community.”
To address growth and housing issues, a Housing for All Task Force was created and has delivered a 10-year action plan.
The Orange County Board of County Commissioners has allocated $10 million a year for the next 10 years, which will allow the county to create and preserve more than 30,000 affordable and attainable housing units by 2030, Demings said.
To reach that goal, Universal Orlando committed 23 acres of land for workforce housing near in an intermodal center near the International Drive corridor.
Orange County launched a transportation sales tax initiative last year aimed at addressing present and long-term needs of failing roads, reduce traffic congestion, improve pedestrian and bicycle safety infrastructure and build a mass transportation structure.
Demings said he has faith the economy will rebound and tourism and business industries will recover. He said 32 conventions and shows rescheduled meetings at the convention center, and Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports is hosting the NBA when games are resumed.
Orange County is thriving, and, together, our future is thriving,” Demings said. “We will not allow a pandemic to knock us off our course forever. Instead, we are destined for greatness. We have 175 years of history to prove that. We are a community that makes sacrifices for the wellbeing of our residents. We are a community that embraces collaboration across the region. We are a community that cares for one another. We are a community that lifts up our local businesses. We are a community that recognizes our front-line workers and first responders. We are a community that applauds its healthcare workers. We are a community that stands against racism and bigotry. Finally, we are a community that stands up for a challenge and comes back safer stronger together. Yes, Orange County is that community.”