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Florida ports, cities continue to lobby for aid in stalled federal COVID-19 package

In this June 2016 photo, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Empress of the Seas heads out of PortMiami, in Miami Beach, Fla.

(The Center Square) – Dramatic declines in cargo and nearly 5 million fewer cruise passengers embarking from Florida ports will cost the state about 170,000 jobs and $23 billion in economic activity by year’s end, according to a study financed by the Florida Ports Council (FPC).

The analysis of COVID-19’s economic fallout on Florida’s 15 designated seaports and the state’s $117.6 billion maritime industry – the nation’s second-largest largest – was conducted by maritime research company Martin Associates.

FPC President and CEO Doug Wheeler included the study in a letter dispatched to Congress this week requesting that ports, as critical infrastructure, are not overlooked again if House Democrats and Senate Republicans agree on another large stimulus package.

FPC has plenty of company in lobbying on behalf of overlooked, or ignored, COVID-19 assistance applicants, ranging from millions of unemployed workers seeking an extension of federal benefits to thousands of small businesses and Florida’s 411 cities.

Members of the Florida League of Mayors and Florida League of Cities in a joint letter to Congress last week warned that without a portion of whatever package is adopted specifically dedicated to cities, many will need to cut staff and services by fall.

“This is not a request for a handout, nor a call for a federal bailout,” read the letter, which was signed by 163 mayors. “As we face diminished revenues, any cuts to our staff impact both the ability to provide those services and contribute to our economic downturn. Absent direct federal assistance, we will be forced to cut our workforce, exacerbating the economic and public health crisis we face.”

Florida received $8.3 billion in federal aid under the $2 trillion CARES Act approved by Congress in March, but only one city in the state – Jacksonville – qualified for direct assistance to cities of 500,000 residents or more.

Twelve Florida counties met the 500,000 threshold and collectively received $2.5 billion in direct payments from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The state’s remaining 45 counties received $1.3 billion in federal assistance allocated by the state.

“Our cities have been an important part of the COVID-19 response,” the mayors said in the letter. “We must also be an important part of the recovery.”

In his letter seeking assistance for Florida’s ports, Wheeler said no funding for ports has been provided in any COVID-19 relief package.

“Whether moving over a 100 million tons of cargo annually or millions of cruise passengers, Florida’s seaports generate and support a vast array of commerce and are the international gateways for goods shipped in and out of the state,” he wrote.

Florida’s seaports generate $117.6 billion annually in national economic impact and provide more than 900,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country, according to FPC.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce said more than 37 percent of goods manufactured in the U.S. is exported overseas from Florida. More than 61,000 Florida companies export more than $6.5 billion in goods to more than 170 countries, creating 2.5 million indirect jobs while directly employing nearly 66,000 Floridians, the chamber said.

A significant component of Florida’s maritime industry can’t operate until at least Sept. 15, when a no-sail order for cruise ships imposed by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) expires.

Florida’s $8 billion cruise industry has been stalled since mid-March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned cruising from U.S. ports. In July, CLIA extended the order through mid-September.

Fourteen cruise lines employ nearly 150,000 state residents and operate 63 ships out of five Florida ports, where more than 11.5 million passengers spent $1.05 billion ashore in 2016, according CLIA.

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