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Sunshine Shunned: Snowbirds Hesitant about Florida Return

Many of the snowbirds from Canada and across the U.S. who spend their winter months in Fla. are delaying plans to return to their usual destinations due to COVID-19 concerns. Some hoteliers report seeing more cancellations and a weaker year-over-year growth.

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Prior to COVID-19, every October, Jay and Mary Anne Parry of London, Ontario, headed south to their property at the Great Outdoors RV park in Titusville.

They’d stay until the end of April, save a quick Christmas break in Canada. While in Brevard, they’d shop. Eat out. Take in shows at the Titusville Playhouse.

After the coronavirus pandemic kept them in Ontario in 2020, they were looking forward to their return this year and, and as early as July 1, were optimistic about motoring to Florida this fall.

That’s not going to happen soon, the Parrys say.

Canadians Al and Lennie Locken of Toronto also are taking a pass on Florida this coming snowbird season. They’ve spent six to eight weeks on the Space Coast every winter since 2008 but haven’t been back since returning to Canada from Cape Canaveral in March 2019. Right now, they’re not planning to return this year either.

“Frankly, we don’t like what we’re seeing in the United States in general, and Brevard is not an exception,” Lennie Locken said.

“We are very hesitant about putting ourselves into an environment where masks aren’t worn by everyone, where public spaces like restaurants and malls are wide open with no occupancy limits, and where so many people refuse to get vaccinated.”

For snowbirds across the border, many of whom are retired, Florida’s continued new infections and hospitalization rates – and the sharp politics around mask and vaccine mandates – are of great concern, even for the vaccinated.

Border restrictions aren’t helping

There’s another reason some will be staying away, too: Canadians can fly into the U.S. for nonessential purposes. But for those like the Parrys, who drive to Florida from Canada, there’s the fact that the U.S. has extended limitations on nonessential travel at Canada and Mexico land and ferry borders until at least Sept. 21.

Where snowbirds flock, biz follows

The economic impact of snowbirds on the Sunshine State is undeniable, whether they hail from Canada or the U.S.

Their numbers dropped precipitously in 2020, but the Canadian Snowbird Association reports that more than 1 million Canadian residents spend winter months in the U.S., including nearly 500,000 snowbirds in Florida. That’s 2.7% of Canada’s population of 37.6 million people.

During October, November and December 2020, Space Coast hotels and other short-term accommodations collected $2.51 million in tourist tax, meaning their revenue from rooms was $50.20 million during that period. That compares with $3.53 million in tax collections and $70.60 million in room revenue during the same period, pre-pandemic, in 2019.

While snowbirds don’t announce themselves as such, they’re a part of the scenery in Brevard County, said Tom Hermansen, a principal in four hotels in Cocoa Beach and one in Cape Canaveral.

“Obviously, the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on travel,” Hermansen said. “It was one of the most affected industries of all because of lockdowns and concerns that people have with respect to catching COVID.”

“That would have been across all travel sectors, including snowbirds. Universally, people stopped traveling last year during the regular season for northerners coming back down to Florida November through March.”

Still, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to get Florida open for business lured millions to the state over the past year despite COVID-19, with broad appeal for travelers of all ages and hometowns.

Summer COVID-19 surge put Florida in the headlines

In March, tickets to all four Walt Disney World theme parks were sold out for the week of spring break, and some of the parks were fully booked through mid-April, according to Disney’s reservation system.

And in May, DeSantis, in a tweet, announced: “Every Floridian has the right to earn a living. Florida is open, and we’ve got your back.”

But then came the summer and the flare-up of the delta variant of the coronavirus putting Florida back in the headlines not for being open but for the sharp increase in cases and hospitalizations. That surge has impacted near-term bookings at local hotels, Hermansen said.

“We’re seeing cancellations and weaker year-over-year growth ... demand is flattening out,” he said.

“We had a very strong June and July but demand has softened. Our booking windows, as far as our ability to predict into the future based on future bookings, that’s all but disappeared. Travel is very, very last minute ... we know for a fact that we’re seeing cancellations due to the high positivity case rates in Florida.”

Snowbirds from US are wary, too

Florida’s coronavirus case numbers are keeping Herb and Suzi Stoller home in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The two recently purchased a condo in Vero Beach, where they’ve enjoyed winters and springs for several years. While in Florida, they play golf. Take tennis lessons. Eat out.

But even though they could make the trip this year after COVID-19 kept them in New York last season, they have no plans at this point.

“Florida is like a hotbed for the virus,” said Herb Stoller, who lays the blame on DeSantis. “When the cruise lines said, ‘We want to only have vaccinated passengers,’ he said ‘No way, I’m going to sue you.’ This was a detriment to the Florida economy, preventing the cruise lines from handling the virus in the most effective way.”

Still, Canadian snowbirds want to return to Florida and Arizona, another winter haven, CTV News reported in August.

“Most of them are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and they want to check out their properties in Florida and Arizona,” Evan Rachkovsky with the Canadian Snowbirds Association told CTV.

“We are anticipating up to 90% of snowbirds with properties in the U.S. will go south this year.”

Jay Parry’s not so sure.

What’s driving snowbird hesitation to travel

Among his fears: health insurance. Despite Canada’s universal health care, snowbirds must purchase supplemental plans for emergency coverage in the U.S.

“Given the fragile and overburdened state of Florida’s health care system with COVID patients taking priority over routine and emergency care, at this point, it is very doubtful most Canadians will be returning to Florida,” Jay Parry said.

“Perhaps this absence does not bother some, but the fact other potential tourists may not visit Florida for the same reason is a shameful reflection on politicians,” he said.

Al Locken, a retired Toronto police sergeant whose father was in the military and was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in the 1960s, was attending Satellite High when his family moved back to Canada for good.

Once he introduced his wife to the Space Coast in 2007, they developed a shared affinity for the area. The two love taking road trips and visiting friends. Eating at local restaurants. Lennie Locken, an artist, has shot countless photos around the Space Coast and Central Florida.

The insurance factor, given Florida’s persisting COVID-19 rates, weighs heavily against returning now, even if the land border were to open and they could drive, Lennie Locken said.

What is particularly alarming to the couple, she said, is the animosity shown toward people who do wear masks in public. She’s seeing too much of that in news coming out of Florida.

“We have no desire to voluntarily expose ourselves to a potentially volatile situation when we’re just getting gas or buying groceries,” Locken said.

“Who needs the hassle?”

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