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Florida Looks At A Winter Without Canadians

Visitors bike along South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla. Tourism has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and the state is coming into high tourism season when it would typically see visitors from Canada and the northeast U.S.
Rebecca Blackwell
Visitors bike along South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla. Tourism has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and the state is coming into high tourism season when it would typically see visitors from Canada and the northeast U.S.

In Florida, this is the time of year for "snowbirds," people who flock south when the weather turns cold up north. Many own homes or condos. Others rent or come with their own RV's. But with COVID-19, this year, some of Florida's most faithful seasonal visitors — Canadians — are staying home.

Every year for a decade, Julia Hayes and her husband John have closed up their home in Mount Albert, north of Toronto and driven south to their vacation getaway in Cape Coral, on Florida's Gulf coast. But not this year. Hayes says, "You're under loads and load of snow and it's not safe to go out and walk. And you certainly can't swim. It's a much healthier lifestyle when we go down to Florida."

Land crossings at the border between the U.S. and Canada have been prohibitedsince March to contain spread of the coronavirus. The closure means that tens of thousands of Canadians who usually drive south this time of year, can't. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said recently his government wants Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel. "People can make their own decisions," he said. "But a travel advisory from the government of Canada to not travel outside the borders unless it's essential travel is about as strong as we can go."

For many Canadians, there's a bigger obstacle than the closed border keeping them home. It's health insurance. Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone says policies that cover COVID-19 are expensive. And some policies have limits as to how much they'll pay. Firestone says, "I would say my business is down close to 75% right now from the traditional period that it used to be very busy with people all leaving for upwards of 185 days, coming back typically in April."

In Florida, Canadians make up a significant part of the tourism-dependent economy. Fort Myers and Cape Coral are especially popular with visitors from Ontario. The Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau says last year, more than 215,000 Canadians visited, spending more than $218 million.

At the Upriver RV Resort in Fort Myers, co-owner Lynda Phelps says most of her Canadian customers, many of whom usually stay for the season, have canceled. "It has definitely impacted the whole area," she says. "Hotel and motel space are down." Phelps says she is seeing more guests than usual from other parts of the U.S., but they're short-term bookings that don't make up for the loss of her Canadian snowbirds.

The border is closed until at least Nov. 21. Prime Minister Trudeau has indicated the closure will likely be extended indefinitely. Because the border closure doesn't affect air travel, some Canadians are flying to Florida this year.

But for those who insist on bringing their cars, Jeremy Rood recently came up with a work-around. "Actually, my parents were wanting to go to Florida," Rood says. He's the charters manager for Great Lakes Helicopter in Cambridge, Ontario. He says his parents have a vacation home there and were planning to self-isolate once they got t0 Florida. "And I said, 'Well you know, that's not a problem. We can get you across the border by helicopter.'"

A friend with a trucking company loaded his parents' car on a flatbed and delivered it just across the U.S. side of the border. Rood's parents picked it up and continued south to Florida. Rood has helped take more than a dozen other Canadians and their cars across the border since then.

U.S. and Canadian Customs officials say it complies with their regulations. And Rood is helping fill a basic Canadian need. He says, "People need to go where it's warm."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 20, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio, as in a previous version of the Web story, we misidentify the co-owner of the RV resort. Her name is Lynda Phelps, not Phillips.
Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.