TORONTO — Pamela Bendall and her husband ordinarily jaunt south each winter to warmer climes. This year, for the first time since 2008, they’re staying put on relatively chilly Vancouver Island. The decision, she said, was “simple”: Canada has advised against nonessential travel, and they followed the guidance.
Claude Whitlock spent “a lot of time” debating whether to trek to his property in Tampa during the pandemic. Then he compared the cost of the tires he’d need to endure a harsh Quebec winter with the cost of shipping the truck south — and left in November.
Each winter, an estimated 1 million Canadians abandon the Great White North for balmier destinations, heading to condos, rental properties or mobile home parks where they live for anywhere from a month to half a year.
Now the pandemic is upending the annual migration of Canada’s snowbirds. Some have opted to roost at home. Others flocked to sun-soaked destinations as normal, but in the year of the pandemic, the experience has been anything but.
Some have managed to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus sooner than they would have in Canada. But now they’re facing the prospect of stringent, expensive new border controls on their return — and the disapproval of their compatriots who followed the government’s recommendations.
“There’s a lot of people really suffering anxiety,” said Denise Dumont, editor in chief of Le Soleil de la Floride, a South Florida newspaper for the sizable contingent of French-speaking snowbirds.
Some of those back in Canada are giving the snowbirds’ gripes the cold shoulder.
“Please excuse those of us hunkered down at home through months of lockdown if we are struggling to muster much sympathy,” wrote Allison Hanes, a columnist for the Montreal Gazette.
(It hit a nerve. Her next column was titled “Incurring the wrath of angry snowbirds.”)
The snowbirds are largely a mix of retired and semiretired people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The majority winter in U.S. states such as Florida and Arizona, where they’re stitched into the fabric of their communities.
This year, many stayed home. Stephen Fine, president of Snowbird Advisor, says a November survey of members of his group found that 30% were “pretty dead set” on traveling to their winter destinations.
Many, but not all. Ottawa has advised against nonessential travel, but it isn’t banned. And while the U.S.-Canada land border is closed to discretionary travel, Canadians can fly to the United States for purposes including leisure. (It is a loophole that Canadian officials say they’re working to close.)
Even some who normally drive down have not been deterred. They’ve turned to cross-border towing companies, whose work is deemed essential, to take their vehicles across the border, then have flown over to meet their vehicles.
For some, the voyage came with a perk: the coronavirus vaccine.
Tens of thousands of out-of-staters, including Canadians, have been vaccinated in Florida under an initial executive order issued by Repbulican Gov. Ron DeSantis that allowed anyone 65 or older to be vaccinated.
After reports of foreigners — including Canadians using private jets — traveling to the state to get their shots and then high-tailing it sparked an outcry, the state introduced a residency requirement last month.
Now, those who can prove residence — with a Florida driver’s license, for example, or a rental agreement and a utility bill — can be vaccinated. Many Canadians can.
Noel Curran, a retiree from Ontario, traveled to his second home in Indian Shores, Fla., with his wife in November. He got his first dose of a coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 21. But he disagrees with Canadians flying down just to get the shot and then heading home.
“We weren’t even thinking about a vaccine here when we came down,” said Curran, 66. “We had no idea of any sort of timing or availability at that stage.”
William Wiatt, a resident of Marathon, Fla., said he doesn’t want “any kind of rift” with snowbirds but thinks the vaccines should be limited to those who pay income tax.
“I’ve had some folks say when Canadians get vaccinated, then that helps the community, and there’s no question it does,” Wiatt said. “But it also eliminates a vaccine dosage for a 64-year-old American.”
Jan Maguire-Card, a Canadian who opted not to travel this year, was less diplomatic. Her husband has a chronic illness, and the pair’s first winter in Canada in four years has been “brutal.”
“I’m very annoyed,” she said. “Very, very annoyed … that Canadians think that they have the right to get vaccines in Florida before Floridians.”
Whitlock, 70, said it wasn’t easy getting an appointment with an overwhelmed booking system, but the Florida rollout was still “way faster” than in Canada, and he wasn’t violating any rules.
“My mother is 94 years old, and she hasn’t even come near to getting a vaccine,” Whitlock said. “Some of my brothers and sisters think it’s a shame that mum couldn’t get it and I got it, but what can I do?”
As for the reaction of locals?
“You have to be very careful,” he said. “The consensus between Canadians is to shut your mouth. Some Americans are glad that we got it, but some others aren’t.”
Then came the new travel restrictions.
Amid pressure from lawmakers, with variants of the coronavirus circulating and spring break approaching, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that as of Feb. 15, nonessential travelers entering Canada at the land border will have to present a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours before arrival or a positive test taken 14 to 90 days before arrival. Those who don’t could face fines.
Air travelers will be tested for the coronavirus upon arrival and be required to spend up to three days in quarantine waiting for results at a government-approved hotel at their own expense — which could eclipse $1,500 per person. Those who test negative can finish their 14-day quarantine at home.
Those rules will take effect Feb. 22.
Although Ottawa has long warned that restrictions could be tightened without warning, snowbirds greeted the news with outrage. Some likened a three-day hotel stay with free Wi-Fi access and individual bathrooms to “jail.”
The prime minister was not moved.
“We are not detaining people,” Trudeau told reporters this week. “These are public health measures to ensure that we are keeping people safe.”
Judith Lessard, a snowbird from Quebec who spends her winters at a mobile home park in Florida, doesn’t think the measures are fair.
“We have the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said Lessard, 67, who has received both doses. “I don’t believe that we should be treated like travelers who have been at an all-inclusive resort partying for two weeks. We are not experiencing that same kind of life.”
Some are planning to drive back to avoid the hotel quarantine or to extend their stays in the hope of waiting out the measures.
The Canadian Snowbird Association wrote to Canada’s transport minister this month saying that it supports coronavirus testing at airports and land crossings but is “firmly opposed” to a mandatory hotel quarantine.
“To force Canadians to pay over $2,000 for three nights of accommodation in a government approved hotel is unreasonable and will be a financial hardship for many,” the organization’s president, Karen Huestis, wrote, describing the cost in Canadian dollars.
But support from winter-weary, pandemic-fatigued Canadians back home is in short supply.
“Snowbirds outraged they were only given one year notice on nonessential travel,” read the headline in the Beaverton, a satirical publication similar to the Onion.
Eighty-six percent of Canadians surveyed by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies said they agreed with the new border measures. Even more said they wanted Ottawa to go further and ban international travel altogether.
Bendall, 66, ordinarily winters on her 43-foot catamaran, sailing around Mexico and South America. When the pandemic hit, she left her “floating home” in Mexico and came back to Canada. Ennui is creeping in.
She’d like to be in the tropics but has no regrets, she said. She thinks Ottawa made the right call with the restrictions — and she isn’t receptive to the moaning about them.
“They went with their eyes open,” she said. “I’m not going to call them selfish, but they didn’t go for the greater good, as far as I’m concerned … I feel badly, but I feel badly for the people who are stuck at home and have to put up with the Canadian winter.”