Kathy and Bud Scott

Kathy and Bud Scott walk past their fifth wheel travel trailer at their primary home in Utah. Many snowbirds who live part time in warmer climates to escape cold weather won’t be flocking south this winter.

Snowbirds have a huge impact on tourism. In Florida alone, 3.6 million Canadians spent time in the state last year, making up a quarter of its foreign tourists, according to the state tourism office. This year, Visit Florida estimates that only 15,000 Canadians arrived between April and September, the last month with available statistics. That’s about a 99% decrease from the same period in 2019.

This is the first winter in five years that Steve Monk and his wife, Linda, haven’t driven to Arizona from their home in Canada.

They typically leave to hunker down in warmer climates for six months. They could fly, skirting travel restrictions at the border, but they’d rather “freeze their buns off” than go to the U.S., where COVID-19 infections and deaths are surging.

“It’s not worth taking a chance. It’s not nearly as bad in this country as it is down there,” said Monk, 69. “Pretty much every Canadian person we do know that goes down (to the U.S.) is not going. It’s pretty widespread.”

“Snowbirds” like the Monks, often retirees who live somewhere warm like Arizona or Florida part time to escape cold weather, won’t be flocking south this winter. For Canadians who drive, nonessential border travel is banned until at least Dec. 21. For some, it’s fear of the virus.

While their absence is being felt by vacation rentals, restaurants and shops, RV parks and campgrounds are seeing an increase in campers as people travel closer to home.

A huge chunk of the snowbird population is Canadian. Evan Rachkovsky of the Canadian Snowbird Association said most people he’s spoken with are suspending trips to the U.S. But some are still adamant about going.

“Some tell me just simply this is something they’ve been doing for 10, 20, 30 years, so it’s habitual in that sense,” Rachkovsky said. “It’s a lifestyle as opposed to vacationing for two weeks.”

For those who go, they may face recommendations to quarantine for up to two weeks, though states often don’t enforce it. They’re also going into communities where hospitals are normally busiest during the winter months, and COVID-19 could overwhelm them.

Health insurance hurdles are deterring retired Toronto accountant Mel Greenglass, who for almost a decade has spent four months of every year in southwest Florida near Naples. Canadian snowbirds must buy a supplemental plan to their government-provided coverage for any emergencies during their stay. It would have been $2,800 for him and his girlfriend this season, up from $1,800 previously, and he feared they wouldn’t be covered if they caught the virus.

Insurers “are not going to lay out a lot of money to cover everybody just by raising their premiums a little bit,” said Greenglass, 78. He added that adapting to the Canadian winter won’t be easy: “I don’t even own a pair of boots.”

The Arizona Office of Tourism said an estimated 964,000 Canadian visitors were responsible for $1 billion of the $26.5 billion in tourism spending last year. In September, visitors overall spent $752 million, down 60% from the $1.9 billion expected in a normal year.

Becky Blaine, the office’s deputy director, said it helps that many people are looking closer to home for vacation. But that will only go so far to offset the loss of international visitors. She’s also not sure how much of a boost RV parks and campgrounds will get.

“Now that kids are back in school though, it would be more of that retiree population versus over the summer when everybody rented RVs, including myself,” Blaine said.

Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida and Alabama RV Parks & Campground Association, believes it’s not “all doom and gloom” for his industry. Snowbirds make up 30% of the business for Florida’s RV parks, he said. There have been cancellations, but park operators are seeing people of all ages road-tripping.

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