‘Better safe than sorry’: Some snowbirds grounded, others fly on

For the first time in decades, Ron and Sue Zanin won’t be escaping the Canadian winter this year.

They have been flying south to Arizona for Christmas since the late 1970s, when Ron’s parents retired and moved to the state. The Windsor, Ont. couple retired themselves almost 20 years ago, and they’ve gone every year since.

But the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, for over two weeks now has brought more than 100,000 new cases a day to the U.S. — and thousands each day in the destination states of Arizona and Florida — has put a stop to their usual plans.

“The United States hasn’t got the best track record with the virus, so it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Ron told CTV News Windsor earlier this week.

The couple’s plans are in line with travel guidelines from the Canadian government, which put a stop to all non-essential travel at the Canada-U.S. land border in March, when the World Health Organization first called COVID-19 a global pandemic. On Wednesday, sources told CTV News that the border closure will remain in place until at least Dec. 21. But Canadian travellers can still buy plane tickets and fly across the border, which many snowbirds still plan to do.

In the last 21 years, Linda Sauve has only stayed home once for winter, and she won’t do it again. She told CTV News Windsor that she has health insurance and plans to fly to Florida in a few weeks. She knows of Canadians in the town she’ll be visiting who told her that the virus spread isn’t rampant there right now.

“My whole thing is just to go down there and be in the warm weather and stick close to home, just like I’m doing here,” she said.

Normally, Sauve would drive, but she’ll be flying out of Toronto this time because of the border closure. 

She isn’t alone in her insistence on escaping Canadian winter. According to Martin Firestone, president of insurance agency Travel Secure, of the two camps of snowbirds, there are plenty who plan to flout official advice. He suspects that their creative “loopholes,” such as shipping their cars across the border while flying in themselves, are “temporary at best” as authorities may clamp down on those strategies.

“Everybody gets a little creative here, but at the end of the day, I still contend that I think heading down the Florida for many of our seniors is a disastrous move, regardless of whether they own a home, rent a condo, or ever would even think of going to a hotel setting,” he told CTV News Channel.

Firestone said he’s heard from people planning on visiting Florida that say they’ll just fly back home if they catch the virus, which is not a foolproof plan, he added.

“They see a fever [at the airport] and they’ll just send you nicely back to the hospital. That’s the paramount problem I see. Hospitals are filling up. The ICU beds are at a minimum,” he said.

Even if snowbirds do have health insurance, it might not be enough to cover costs in the U.S. health-care system, depending on the severity of COVID-19 infection. Insurance companies are providing coverage, but often to a maximum of US$100,000 to $500,000.

“That may just not even be enough when you think about it, if in the event you ended up in an intensive care unit,” said Firestone. “Even if you have the comfort level or peace of mind thinking you have the insurance — I’m not sure you have it.”

That’s why snowbirds may really be “on their own” if they decide to fly into the U.S., the world’s worst-hit country, during the second wave of the pandemic, said travel expert Loren Christie.

“If you decide to go, it’s your decision and you’re kind of on your own,” he told CTV News Channel earlier this month. Some may feel a boost of confidence after months practicing safety protocols in Canada.

“They feel that if they go down, they can exercise physical distancing and other measures down south as well as they can up here,” he said. 

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