Snowbirds eye return to Florida even as sunshine state battles COVID-19

The allure of escaping Canada's winter weather may be strong enough to drive more snowbirds to head to Florida during the coming second winter of the pandemic.

Lure of sunshine and lack of snow remain a draw for snowbirds, more of whom may head south again

Karen Patrick captured this image in Cocoa Beach, Fla. The retired nurse last stayed in her condo a year and a half ago — having to rush back to Canada in March 2020 as the onset of the pandemic prompted sudden border closures and travel restrictions around the world. (Submitted by Karen Patrick)

Karen Patrick had a lovely time hanging out in New Brunswick last winter, but she'd rather have spent some of that time somewhere warmer — namely at her Florida condo.

The retired nurse last saw her condo as the grip of the global pandemic took hold and she hurriedly packed her bags amid calls from Ottawa — and her adult children — to get back across the border.

"The kids got frantic," said Patrick, 63, recalling the stress her family felt a year and a half ago.

A winter has passed since the pandemic started and another is approaching — a long stretch that has left Canadian snowbirds longing for some Florida sun. 

And while Patrick, now fully vaccinated, isn't ready to return — on account of the pressure COVID-19 is putting on Florida's health system — it seems an increasing number of snowbirds are making plans to head south.

Not what Ottawa recommends

While these Canadian sun seekers might be Florida-bound in the months ahead, the federal government doesn't endorse the idea.

Global Affairs Canada said Friday it still recommends Canadians avoid "all non-essential travel" outside the country, reiterating a stance Ottawa has held since the pandemic started.

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A stretch of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Fla., is seen during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken March 25, 2020. From the onset of the pandemic, the Canadian government has advised Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel outside the country — a stance it still holds today. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)

Dr. Erica Weir, a public health physician in eastern Ontario, understands why people want to get away but concurs with the government.

"I would advise against non-essential travel and against travelling into an area with high COVID activity, especially with the uncertainty posed by new variants," she said by email.

Yet, just like last year, the situation won't hold some snowbirds back.

Tired of winter

"They're not going to spend another winter in Canada," Wallace Weylie, legal counsel for the Canadian Snowbird Association, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper this week.

Both Air Canada and WestJet say they're seeing indications Canadians want some time in the sun.

Mask-wearing beachgoers are seen at Florida's Clearwater Beach during Spring Break this past March, a year after the pandemic started. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

In an email, Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said there's "strong demand" for leisure travel to U.S. destinations — including to California, Florida and Hawaii — "with many of these markets on pace with 2019 levels."

WestJet is also seeing a desire for sun travel, according to Morgan Bell, the company's manager of media and public relations. But she said "demand remains inconsistent and challenging to predict" due to "fragmented" travel rules.

The wait is over … for some

Snowbirds who go to Florida in the immediate future will fly there, as the U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential travel.

That's how Mike Shea, a double-vaccinated retired Ontarian, got to Florida this past Monday — his first time back since the pandemic started.

Snowbirds head to Florida to enjoy the sun — though depending where they roam, they might see an occasional alligator, like this one Karen Patrick spotted in the Cocoa Beach area on a past trip. (Submitted by Karen Patrick)

So far, he hasn't found the crowds to be too concerning at the grocery stores and golf courses he's been visiting near St. Petersburg, Fla.

"It's not busy," said Shea, 68, who's made seasonal treks to Florida for the past 40 years.

This year, he's arrived as Florida grapples with serious COVID-19 challenges.

To date, Florida has seen more than 3.5 million COVID-19 cases overall and more than 50,000 deaths. These figures far exceed Canada's nearly 1.6 million total coronavirus infections and more than 27,000 deaths. The state's hospitals have been hard hit with cases.

Shea's being as cautious as he can — spending time only with a few friends, all of whom are also vaccinated.

"We just watch ourselves," said Shea.

People wait in cars to get a COVID-19 test in a photo taken in Miami last month. The state of Florida has seen more than 3.5 million cases of COVID-19 — more than twice the total in Canada to date — since the start of the pandemic. (Marta Lavandier/The Associated Press)

Dr. Samir Sinha says any snowbirds considering a trip to Florida should consider the added risks they're facing as older adults.

"With more COVID spreading and [a] more highly unvaccinated population there, there's a greater risk that they might contract COVID," said Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Toronto's Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals.

He said they're also travelling to a place where the health-care system "is quite overwhelmed" in places and that might limit their access to care, especially if they lack adequate insurance.

Not the typical trip this year

Edmonton's Serge Dupuis would like to go to Florida with his wife after Christmas, but that will depend on a variety of factors — including whether they're able to drive down.

Florida's beaches and sunny skies are a draw for the snowbirds who flock to the sunshine state during the winter. The photo above shows a Miami-Dade County beach in March 2020, just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. (Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters)

Before the pandemic, the couple would often make pit stops to see friends in the U.S. during the multi-day drive to their mobile home, which is located near Tampa, Fla.

"It's a nice way to go and we take seven or eight days to go [there]," said Dupuis, 69, who was last in Florida as the pandemic emerged.

If they end up going this winter, Dupuis said they'll be doing things differently — avoiding crowds for starters.

"We're not going to go to sports events, we're not going to go to farmers' markets, flea markets, those kinds of things," said Dupuis. "That doesn't mean that we can't enjoy ourselves — obviously having plus 30 degrees is better than having –30 [degrees] in Edmonton."

For Dupuis, it's not just what he'll get to do in Florida, but what he won't have to put up with back home.

"Getting out over the winter, not having to shovel the snow and you know, enjoying the sunshine," he said.

But for Patrick, the retired nurse, the risks are still too high. She's opting to stay in Canada this October despite Florida's allure.

She's worried care would be hard to come by if she needed anything.

"I'm not taking any chances," she said.

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