In Pandemic, OC Faces ‘Perhaps Its Greatest Economic Challenge’

September 24, 2020 Updated: September 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic may be Orange County’s “greatest economic challenge,” but the county is well-positioned to rebound, according to the 2020–2021 Orange County Community Indicators report released by the Orange County Business Council on Sept. 22.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of public and private life, ravaging lives and livelihoods, causing economic devastation,” stated the report, which has been released annually for the past 20 years to track the California county’s long-term health and prosperity.

Fortunately, “Orange County’s demonstrated economic resilience, combined with its broad range of competitive advantages and industry clusters, suggests the region is well-positioned to weather these disruptions,” the report said.

Before the pandemic, Anaheim, Irvine, and Santa Ana offered the biggest job opportunities to Orange County residents.

“These three major job centers have been heavily affected by the pandemic, especially Anaheim, which is the center of the county’s tourist industry. Their ability to withstand and bounce back will play a major role in the county’s overall recovery,” the report stated.

The unemployment rate in Orange County increased from 2.9 percent in January to 13.8 percent in April, before dropping slightly to 12.3 percent in July.

Only 80,877 job postings were created in July, compared to 140,585 during the same month last year—a reduction of nearly 60,000 jobs.

The county’s hospitality and tourism industry, which employs more than 220,000 workers, was the hardest hit by the pandemic.

A record 50.2 million travelers visited Orange County in 2019, spending $13 billion. The 2020 numbers are expected to be a fraction of that amount.

The county’s largest employer, Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, has been shut down for months, affecting more than 32,000 workers.

Many popular events were also canceled, including the Orange County Fair, which draws nearly 1.3 million visitors each year, and the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, which attracted 375,000 people to Huntington Beach in 2018.

The number of passengers traveling through John Wayne Airport has also significantly declined, falling 97 percent between January and April. Though numbers have begun to rebound, a reduced number of passengers is expected for at least the rest of the year.

Despite the impact of these larger employers, 95 percent of all Orange County jobs come from small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Many of these small businesses—including restaurants, wineries, retail shops, hair salons, nail salons, and gyms—were only allowed to reopen on Sept. 8, with reduced capacity, as the county moved from the purple to the red tier of the state’s monitoring system.

“While recovery may take time, Orange County’s strong economy, robust healthcare infrastructure, and strong education system will all serve as valuable drivers in the process of recovery and resilience,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, a number of employers in Orange County have developed new, innovative ways to thrive during the pandemic.

Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach’s Surf City Still Works both switched from distilling alcohol to making hand sanitizer.

Two biomedical startup companies in Irvine, Nanommune Inc. and Velox Biosystems Inc., are now providing COVID-19 testing.

And Masimo Corp. in Irvine created the Masimo SafetyNet, which allows doctors at hundreds of hospitals to remotely monitor the vital signs of patients at home with COVID-19.

In addition, the telehealth and telecommuting industries may even get a boost, as working from home and providing medical care from a distance is becoming more and more popular.

About 66 percent of the total COVID-19 cases in Orange County have affected the working-age population, from 25 to 64 years old, but only about a quarter of the total deaths have come from this group.

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