Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association

 

Checking In with Homes Away From Home

by  John Hardy

 

Non-snowbirds just don’t get it. Oh sure − it’s about the weather, the sun, the temperatures (even if Fahrenheit), the shorts, slathering sunscreen, the beach, the pool and tee-off times in February. But for Florida, California’s Coachella Valley, Texas and Arizona snowbirds, it’s about so much more. It’s about familiarity. Thinking about (and missing) the warm ’n fuzzies of home-away-from-home. The favourite dish from that favourite menu. The favourite fitting rooms. Up and down the familiar grocery aisles. And nice days on favourite golf courses.

The lingering impact of COVID-19 commotion continues to be a tricky part of the decision-making scramble for Canada’s 375,000 snowbirds. Airlines are more flexible about cancellations, the American CDC just gave cruise lines a conditional okay to resume sailings and, although Canadian COVID-19 rules will likely change by the time many snowbirds flock home in the spring, mandatory 14-day quarantines are in place.

Snowbirds anxiously hope for a vaccine and weigh the risks (sometimes until the last minute), while irresistibly drawn to their favourite homes-away-from-home. Eastern Canada snowbirds are making decisions about mostly Florida and Texas beaches, malls, villas and condos. Western Canada snowbirds are tempted by the Arizona or California weather, golf courses, State parks and breathtaking scenery.

Since most COVID-19 news updates are national or regional, it’s impossible to be up to date about local specifics. Homesick blues or not, snowbirds can’t help but wonder: is it busy and are they wearing masks at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda, near Port Charlotte? Is there a wait to get on the greens at Heritage Palms in Indio, Mangrove Bay in St. Pete, Palmview in McAllen, Cleveland Heights in Lakeland or the Longbow in Mesa? How is the date crop and the irresistible aroma of freshly baked date bread at Shields Date Garden in Indio? Are there crowds at La Plaza Mall in McAllen?

So, CSANews checked in for an update.

While there’s sunshiny rivalry between Florida’s East and West Coasts, sheer numbers show that snowbirds flock to the Gulf Coast. Particularly the St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Bradenton and Port Charlotte areas.

Florida issued a broad reopening in mid-summer; masks are not mandatory, but most Florida areas have local-specific COVID-19 guidelines in place.

“The St. Pete/Clearwater destination welcomes more than 122,000 Canadian snowbirds each year,” says the affable Chris Steinocher, president & CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the fabulous weather, the 35 miles of white sandy beaches and, because our St. Petersburg focus is recreating the walkable city for the 21st century, the sidewalks are filled with local shops, galleries, breweries and eateries. Our new $80 million St. Pete Pier Park just opened this July.”

He admits that in St. Pete, like in most parts of North America, there are new normals virtually everywhere. “We have gone through a learning curve to be safe at all times. ‘The St. Petersburg Way’ makes safety the #1 issue for our businesses and, although initially there were temporary closings and reconfigurations, we’re now fully reopened. An official St. Petersburg requirement is wearing masks in public places, except outdoors and in partially enclosed areas and residences. Different communities may post different regulations, but we’re asking all visitors to bring a mask to match their bathing suit,” he laughs. “They will need both!”

The Bradenton area is just south of St. Petersburg and is usually a popular winter-home choice for more than 22,000 Canadians. This winter will likely not be usual. In fact, although property taxes are still due on all of those Canadian snowbird winter homes, there’s no doubt that Bradenton life in 2021 will be a bit iffy. From the Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka to the Asolo Repertory Theatre, there are precautions. Restaurants, bars and pubs are at limited capacity, there’s social distancing and other cautious protocols such as disposable, single-occasion paper menus.

Lakeland is slightly inland from the Gulf, but thousands of Canadian snowbirds flock here each year,” says the upbeat Cory Skeates, president & CEO of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. “It’s hard to tell what this winter will be like. The Lakeland area has a small-town feel, but the proximity to beaches, theme parks and the wonders of ‘Old Florida’ beauty make us a big-draw Canadian snowbird destination. As of November, masks are not mandatory and most previous municipal COVID-19 restrictions are no longer enforced, leaving it up to businesses about specific safety measures. Restaurants, bars and retail are now fully reopened and at 100% capacity.”

The Port Charlotte area (on the West Coast between Sarasota and Naples) is a sprawling Florida-snowbird favourite stretch. It includes Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and Englewood. “It’s difficult to guesstimate exact numbers,” says Teri Ashley, executive director of the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce, “There are 46,000 Canadian snowbirds, about seven per cent of our total seasonal visitors.”

From the significantly reduced departures and arrivals at the small but convenient Punta Gorda Airport to the beaches, restaurants and boating at Stump Pass, she points out that “Port Charlotte businesses were less impacted than many other Florida areas and, while public health guidelines are followed, all businesses are open and fully operational. We do have a face mask requirement for indoor settings, when social distancing is not possible. Luckily for us, we have plenty of wide-open space to work with,” Teri smiles.

Indio, in California’s Coachella Valley, is a western Canadian snowbird hot spot. While Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Joshua Tree National Park and the trendy, world-famous (but cancelled for 2020) Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival are big draws, some 1.4 million people visit Indio each year and call it a winter home-away-from-home.

“The main economic driver in our area is tourism and our snowbirds play a significant role,” says Joshua Bonner, president and CEO of the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce. “California has taken a very aggressive approach to containing the COVID-19 situation. Many businesses have been heavily impacted by closures and have reopened with significant reductions in capacity.” He explains that restrictions and the situation are fluid. Inside restaurants have 25 per cent capacity and retail (including malls) and personal services, such as hair and nail salons, are at 50 per cent.

Mesa, Arizona (just east of Phoenix) is also a favourite with western Canadian snowbirds, who own or rent more than 100,000 Arizona properties for enjoying golfing, hiking, gambling at the We-Ko-Pa Casino, watching olives being pressed into fresh extra virgin olive oil at the Queen Creek Olive Mill, or the chug-chugging Goldfield Ghost Town Train, the desert and towering red canyon walls.

“Winter visitors are important to the tourism health of our destination,” said Visit Mesa’s Michelle Streeter. “Mesa attracts 4.5 million visitors a year and, in 2019, visitor spending in Mesa climbed to record levels.” She admits that calculating just Canadian snowbird numbers gets tricky, but adds that about 70% of Arizona’s Canadian snowbirds flock from Alberta, B.C. and Ontario.

Arizona was one of the hardest-hit COVID-19 areas in the U.S. and Mesa stats show that infection rates spiked again, as recently as late October. COVID-19 restrictions continue to impact area businesses. Retail and restaurants and bars are open, but with varying levels of public health rules, limitations…and customers.

McAllen, Texas is five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. “With more than 300 area RV parks and retirement communities, we have more than 100,000 visitors each year,” says personable Robert Lopez, vice-president of Visit McAllen. “Some key snowbird factors are the cost of living in comparison to other retirement destinations, as well as snowbirds opting for McAllen’s proximity to Mexico and South Padre Island.”

Like many areas in North America, the COVID-19 situation and public health rules constantly change but (as of November) McAllen restaurants, stores and other businesses are open, no mask mandates or crowd size restrictions are in place, but the City requires that businesses prominently display the McAllen Safe Business Commitment Form. “McAllen has definitely felt the COVID-19 impact,” Lopez admits. “Retail sales are down by more than 5% year-to-date, due in large part to the travel restrictions, not only for snowbirds, but because leisure travel from Mexico usually accounts for roughly a third of McAllen’s retail sales.

“One thing for sure: we love our Canadian snowbird Winter Texans,” he says with enthusiasm.

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