Sask. snowbirds prepare to head north early as travel tightens amid COVID-19

First-time snowbirds Debbie and Cliff Sagel are heading home early to self-isolate, as government officials call on travellers to come home amid the global pandemic.

Canadian Snowbird Association advises people to check on medical insurance

Cliff and Debbie Sagel hitched up a fifth-wheel trailer and headed down to Yuma, Ariz., for their first snowbird trip. They're heading home earlier than planned and are preparing to enter a two-week isolation period. (Supplied by Cliff and Debbie Sagel)

Saskatchewan's snowbirds are heading north a little early, as governments urge travellers to return home amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Debbie Sagel and her husband, Cliff, hauled their fifth-wheel down to Yuma, Ariz., on New Year's Eve and planned to stay until early-April. It was their first snowbird trip, and they joined thousands of Canadian snowbirds who head south every winter. 

"This is our first year, so it was all new to us," Sagel said, chuckling.

The federal government has called for all travellers abroad to return home and has advised against all non-essential travel. Ottawa has also barred entry to all travellers who are not Canadian citizens, permanent residents or Americans in a step to stop the spread of COVID-19.

At first, it wasn't clear to Sagel if they'd have to head home, as much of the advice seemed to target air travellers. Worries and frustrations bubbled up as the Sagels tried to come up with a plan. The question for the couple then became, "Where is it safer for us?" They knew they had to leave, but bad winter weather featured in the forecast. They worried about becoming stranded roadside or stuck in a crowded hotel. 

The Canadian Snowbird Association (CSA) has urged its members to adhere to the evolving travel advisories. It released a statement Sunday saying it had received "reports that several insurance providers are giving policy holders 10 days to return home to Canada before all coverage ceases."

The non-profit advised its members to contact their travel medical insurance provider immediately to determine their updated policies.

Sagel did phone her provider and was told "now that the government says you should come home, you won't be covered for COVID-19 if you get it before you get home."

Sagel said limited access to Canadian television programming or door delivery of a local newspaper made decisions harder as the COVID-19 situation evolved. 

"I guess we're just like everybody else — we're confused and there's so much misinformation out there," she said. "Every time you look online, it's trying to sift through what's real and what's not real."

Amid conflicting or confusing reports online, some of their neighbours had questioned if the situation was being "blown out of proportion" as they considered to stay or go. But now the numbers of COVID-19 are on the rise in Canada. All Saskatchewan cases have been related to travel. The latest presumptive case involves a man in his 60s with recent travel from Arizona. 

The Sagels confirmed Monday that they will return the same day Saskatchewan's government told all citizens abroad "it's time to come home." Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer reminded the public that the 14-day isolation period is "essential." 

Sagel said there have been at least two reported cases close to Yuma. The couple feels fine health-wise, but are planning to isolate for two weeks once they arrive in Regina. 

Health officials say not everyone infected will present symptoms and the only way to confirm COVID-19 is with a lab test.

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