Should they stay or should they go?
It’s a question snowbirds across Canada are asking themselves as winter approaches amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the answer isn’t as simple as some might think.
“For my husband, it was a no-brainer,” said Orillia’s Lisa James. “I’m a more cautious soul.”
James and husband Bill McKenzie ultimately agreed: They would head to Jupiter, Fla., as they’ve done regularly since they purchased a place there in 2004.
Florida was seen as the United States’ hotspot for coronavirus in the summer, peaking at more than 15,000 cases in one day in July. The numbers aren’t that high now, though the state has still been reporting thousands of cases daily in recent weeks.
The situation weighed on James “to a certain degree in the summertime, but this is a huge state and there are huge cities,” she said.
“That’s where you tend to get the hotspots. Jupiter is a smaller community,” she said during a phone interview from the southeastern Florida town.
James and McKenzie are in a gated community that includes about 325 homes and plenty of open space, and she said no one in that community has contracted the virus.
“If we were in Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, it might be different,” she said. “I feel just as comfortable as I do in Orillia. People are taking it seriously.”
The topic of travelling during the pandemic can be a contentious one, but James said she and her husband are taking all necessary precautions and following guidelines. They don’t go shopping more than they need to, they don’t have guests over and they don’t go out for dinner. When they do venture out, they wear masks where necessary.
“We conduct ourselves the same way as we do in Orillia,” she said.
While there was initially some reluctance on James’s part to head south, that has changed.
“I’m so glad now that I’m here. I need to have a lot of physical activity. For my mental and physical health, it’s way better here,” she said. “How do you balance living your life and doing what you want for yourself and managing the public health risk? It’s tricky.”
McKenzie arrived in Florida in late October and James joined him in mid-November. They plan to spend their usual six months there, but they’re prepared to cut the season short if need be.
“The world being what it is, something might bring us back,” she said.
Among those not comfortable travelling to warmer climes are Vilda and Jack Reid. The Severn Township couple has wintered for the past five years at their place in Port Charlotte, Fla. They were there in mid-March of this year.
“We got out of Florida very quickly when we found out it wasn’t the place to be,” Jack said.
The pandemic is the main reason they’ve decided to stay home this year, but it’s not the only one.
“The political situation certainly was a factor,” Vilda said. “It was a little disconcerting. Everything was very unsettled.”
“We saw what was happening in the States and with people out with guns,” Jack added. “We just worried what was going to happen if Trump lost (the election).”
The determining factor, however, was COVID-19.
“We just felt more comfortable here, especially with our health care,” Vilda said.
The Reids usually spend six months a year in their gated community at the Maple Leaf Golf and Country Club, where they have access to an array of clubs and activities, including tennis, pickleball and swimming.
“We were very busy there,” Vilda said. “We were far more active down there in the winter than we tended to be here.”
Jack has a compromised immune system, so he and his wife haven’t been out and about much since March. Vilda has still managed to keep herself busy with arts and crafts, reading and taking part in online exercise programs on Zoom.
With the snowy season arriving, she plans to dust off the snowshoes and cross-country skis, too.
The Reids said about 95 per cent of the friends and family members they know of who typically travel south have decided to stay home this season. Some people only have seasonal residences here, though, and are “scampering for a place to live” during the winter.
“We feel very fortunate that we live just outside of town with a bit of property on the lake. We don’t feel so confined,” she said. “We’re fortunate to be here and healthy and we’re going to make the most of it. We know, someday, it will get better.”
While the Canada-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel, Canadians can fly to places with open borders.
Canadian public health officials have advised against non-essential travel.
While the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has a local mandate, the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner, issued a special statement this week that reads, in part, “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”