Ballard Partners: Helping clients in Florida’s COVID-19 hotspot
Amy Young, José Felix Diaz and Mat Forrest of Ballard Partners.

COVID has revealed a hidden role lobbyists have always played.

On March 16, three days after President Donald Trump declared coronavirus a national emergency, Amy Young got a call. Young, a senior managing partner for Ballard Partners, represents the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with other premier organizations for pathologists and ophthalmologists in Florida. Her contacts spanned the state and beyond and covered every aspect of women’s health care.

A senior managing partner who joined the firm 20 years ago, she had opened the first Ballard satellite office. But this message brought news she had never seen before: The state was shutting down elective surgeries for an indefinite length of time, presumably until authorities got a better handle on an emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

“That doesn’t mean plastic surgery,” she said. “We’re talking about something that’s planned like knee surgery or hip surgery, things that really damage patients’ health if they don’t take care of it in a timely fashion.”

The temporary ban encompassed Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, which was being held back and included elective cesarean sections, which can reduce the risk of trauma during delivery.

“The Ob-Gyns I represent were very anxious to try to communicate why it was necessary to have elective C-sections,” Young said. After a series of meetings, Gov. Ron DeSantis relented and allowed elective surgeries, though otherwise, the densely populated tri-county area remained in Phase 1.

“That was a big hurdle, but we did succeed,” Young said. “It was kind of a big deal for us.”

Founded in 1998 in Tallahassee, Ballard now has offices in eight American cities and Tel Aviv. Work of the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach offices often overlap, effectively forming a regional branch serving South Florida and not just individual cities which also number among its clients.

A 90% reduction in air traffic, for example, has hurt airports that normally received travelers from across the hemisphere, with South Florida long serving as the gateway from Latin America. V.I.P lounges and other businesses operating within airports are fighting to stay afloat, said José Felix Diaz, a lawyer who served seven years in the Florida House of Representatives.

Politicians still consider him a fast-rising star, recognized by both the American Conservative Union and a “top 10 young leader” by the Conservative Political Action Conference, but was known for his bipartisan leadership. Soon after graduating from Columbia Law School, he gained a reputation for advocacy through thickets of contracts, public-private partnerships and complex land use issues.

His clients at Ballard include well-known Miami shopping destinations, Brickell City Centre and the Design District; as well as Florida International University and Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Like all the partners in this firm, Diaz does extensive volunteer work, serving on nearly a dozen boards of nonprofit organizations and untangling questions about what help they might apply for or when it might be reasonable to bring furloughed workers back.

And he’s trying to help airport vendors stay afloat.

“The flights that were happening were for ‘essential’ businesses,” he said (a designation, he noted, that has been interpreted differently at local, state and federal levels). “That’s not tourists spending money.”

The federal CARES Act and Paycheck Protection Plan are “massive pieces of legislation passed in good faith,” Diaz said. “But there wasn’t enough time to fully vet them. So, there were a lot of people that fell into loopholes and were not contemplated as businesses that should have been able to receive loans.”

Airports often require vendors to pay guaranteed monthly minimums, he added. “There are no caveats in the contracts for pandemics. It is not considered an act of God in a lot of contractual relationships. So, we’re helping them navigate through those waters.”

Some clients, he said, are “very worried about what the future of air travel will look like.”

In some ways, COVID-19 has revealed a hidden role lobbyists have always played, as translators of bureaucratic and sometimes ambiguous language, said Mat Forrest, who took a circuitous path to his position in the West Palm Beach office with Young. He started out in local government, working with more than 30 South Florida municipalities in tourism, hospitality and education.

“A lot of people think of lobbyists as advocating for your clients’ interests or issues,” Forest said. “Where a lot of times you’re really a conduit of information between the client and the government. When COVID came out, at first, I was interpreting or estimating or prophesying what the next steps were going to be.

“It wasn’t, ‘Hey Mat, go and tell them we need X, Y and Z.’ It was, ‘Mat, what’s the Governor’s next move?’”

The pandemic, he believes, is “part of a cultural shift in the way we live and do things.”

A sense of shifting ground affects even the largest entities, said Mike Abrams, who served 12 years in the Florida House, where he chaired the House Health Care Committee and Rehabilitative Services Subcommittee on Appropriations.

Lately, he has seen major hospitals struggling with low bed counts due to non-COVID patients not coming in.

“Our roster is pretty robust with major institutions in the county, and even the large ones are threatened by the virus,” Abrams said.

It’s taken its toll on them, too. Diaz and his family were within a day of traveling for vacation when he got word that COVID-19 had touched his family. Ultimately both his parents and grandmother would test positive. Unfortunately, his grandmother passed from the virus, while the rest are recuperating.

Stephanie Grutman Zauder, a South Florida native who runs Ballard’s Ft. Lauderdale office, was in constant contact with both her clients and community during this period. “Our education clients needed help transitioning to virtual schools overnight. We were there for them, at the same time I navigated my kindergartener and 2nd Grader through virtual school. From navigating executive orders to connecting technology clients and community resources, “we went from working from home to working FOR our home.”

Katherine San Pedro, a well-known legislative, campaign and government affairs veteran, saw the onset of the pandemic as a wake-up call. “Oh my God, it’s a tsunami and it’s about to get real,” she remembers. Pregnant with twins, San Pedro also knew here efforts were at once personal and professional. “How can I keep my community and clients safe as well as my babies?”

Young seconded that sentiment. “The virus not only brought families together, it also brought the Ballard family together, closer than ever.”

Andrew Meacham

Andrew Meacham is a writer living in St. Petersburg. He worked for the Tampa Bay Times for 14 years, retiring in December 2018 as a performing arts critic. You can contact Andrew at [email protected].


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