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Florists facing challenges after flower shortage caused by COVID-19

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This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and celebrating that special day with mom may have been made worse because of COVID-19. We’re not just talking about vaccinations and social distancing. Another issue is flowers. The coronavirus made 2020 a tough year for the floral industry that traditionally showers mothers with blossoms. And, florists say 2021 could be even worse because of a worldwide flower shortage. COVID-19, labor shortages, floods, hurricanes, and shipping bottlenecks may add up to a different Mother’s Day for many this year.

Florists in the Mobile area say they have never seen a time like this.

“We turned down orders yesterday,” said Kimberly Snipes, who owns Bay Flowers in Mobile. “Today I said, I think we can fill a few more. We have so much work. I have to cover what I'm already committed to,” she said.

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Snipes has worked in flower shops since she was 15. This is the first time she had to say no to customers because she didn’t have flowers. The demand is more than the supply can provide.

“Valentines this year was the bomb,” she said. “The farms can't keep up with it and Mother's Day is getting ready to happen. I have a person I'm connected with in Miami, she's begging from farms. Stuff's coming in and she can only get me about five or six boxes a week.”

Ron Barrett is among those trying to place orders. He’s an event designer trying to get his ducks in a row for a wedding.

“I’ve got a list of things I’d like to get,” Barrett said. “I need 50 of the mont blanco white roses. I need 50 stems of white tulips. I need three bunches of snapdragons.”

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After the call, Barrett had sticker shock. He just spent the most money ever on flowers. Not only are blossoms harder to get, they’re more expensive.

“She never talked about that before,” Barrett said. “She gave me a list of six things that will sell out before I get there because they're not getting the flowers. There's three things that are causing it. The virus, the freezes this winter, and the hurricanes in South America are causing it.”

Barrett has designed floral arrangements for more than 50 years. He hasn’t seen anything like 2020 and this year. He said the cancellation of Mardi Gras balls and celebrations also hurt local florists.

“In 2020, I did 37 Mardi Gras Balls, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Barrett said. “All of that went away in 2021. Next door, we have that whole block and I have artists studios in there. I hire artists, pat them on the back and give them projects and dollars. None of that's happening now.”

Hall’s Wholesale Flowers provides flowers to florists and event planners like Barrett. Andy Givens is the operations manager at Hall’s. He said the shortage was also caused by quarantine curfews in Ecuador, increased rainfall in the Andes that left flowers rotting in fields, and an airline that went out of business in South America that reduced cargo space for shipping.

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"Some countries like Ecuador had curfews where workers couldn't work past two o'clock so the farms had to close by 12,” Givens said. “They had to let their employees off by noon because some of them commuted an hour and a half to two hours to work every day. They didn't have enough time to actually work the employees to get flowers cut or processed. To even get flowers replanted for different seasons."

Mother nature made a bad situation in South America worse. Ecuador and Colombia are having two to three times the regular rainfall. Shipping flowers to the U.S. is also a problem.

“One of the three major airlines that shipped flowers from South America to the United States went out of business last year during all this. That reduced the amount of space for shipping for cargo space. People aren't flying commercially, so they don't have the room under a plane."

“We have a perfect storm right now,” said florist Stephanie Easterling. “Brides waited to get married and hold their events. They are having these on dates that were already scheduled. So it's a doubling of events and twice the product is needed.”

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Easterling said greater demand and less product have kept her scrambling for substitutions that will keep her customers happy. The cost of flowers and shipping has also increased, but the quotes she gave were based on last year’s pricing. The additional costs are coming out of her pocket.

“We spend a lot of our day trying to get as close to the vision as possible and hoping that our brides are really happy,” Easterling said. “Mostly at our expense because our numbers are already off based on how we bid the project versus what the cost of flowers are right now. Plus the cost of labor.”

This is also a hard time for florists to find the employees they need. Easterling said she needs five more employees but can’t find them.

“We’re having a very hard time getting labor,” Easterling said. “I'm bringing labor in from New York. We're picking the designer from the airport on Sunday to stay with us through a busy season. I interviewed 14 people last week for a driver. They really didn't want to drive.”

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Easterling said her business survived 2020 because of strong community support in Fairhope. This is the year she is worried about.

“You would have thought the year of COVID would have been the hardest. It was much easier to work through COVID than the post-COVID ramifications,” Easterling said. “I did not see that coming at all. I was crazy anxious last year, going into the year of COVID and wondering if our business would even be open. What would it look like this year? A lot of our friends don’t have their business. I had no idea that really what I needed to figure out was how we would function without labor and limited product.”

Florists are hanging on through the spring and summer, hoping the flowers will return by fall.