The annual migration of snowbirds to South Florida has begun, but you may not notice.
As COVID-19 cases spike across the nation, South Floridians who usually watch beaches and restaurants fill up with out-of-towners are wondering the same thing: How big will this year’s flock be?
Not as big as usual.
Each year, thousands of residents from northern U.S. and Canadian cities leave their homes to escape the bone-chilling cold of winter and head south to Florida for extended stays that often last into the early spring. They come by planes, trains, cars, luxury motor coaches and RVs with small boats in tow.
County tourism bureaus don’t closely track snowbird traffic. But at the start of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show this week, Mayor Dean Trantalis guessed that the number of seasonal visitors could be off by as much as 20% to 25%.
The mayor said he has a brother in Connecticut, who, along with his wife, elected to stay home this year.
Whether fewer snowbirds is good or bad depends on your view of what South Florida living should be.
For some full-time residents, this year will be what they always hope for: Fewer people clogging roads with cars bearing out-of-state plates. Fewer beachgoers angling for space on the shoreline. Fewer diners fighting for restaurant reservations.
But the smaller gaggle of snowbirds is not good news for businesses that will suffer in a year when they’ve already suffered too much.
And that old adage that it’s the visitors who foot the bill for the amenities of paradise could boomerang. Sales and bed taxes will decline, and employment could fall further.
Restrictions upon landing
The snowbirds who do come can expect some pandemic-driven changes from last year, particularly at condo complexes and RV parks that are determined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“My best advice for people coming down is to contact their association and see what the protocols are,” said Donna DiMaggio Berger, a longtime condo and homeowner association lawyer at the Becker firm in Fort Lauderdale.
She said a number of her association clients are informing snowbird residents “that they are not going to be able to use amenities for a certain amount of time.”
“Even the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said the risk for transmission increases when you have people coming from other spots,” she said. “In 55-and-over retirement communities, the stakes are higher. They have a vulnerable resident demographic.”
Many complexes and high-rises have closed their gyms, community rooms, game rooms and libraries since the pandemic struck in March.
Nancy Schreiber, property manager at the Paradise Island RV Resort in Oakland Park, said she’s worried about travelers from states that lack safety mandates that are prevalent in South Florida.
“They’re coming from states that don’t know what a mask looks like,” she said. “We tell them what’s going on here in Broward and Miami Dade. Hopefully, they don’t book and feel they’ve got the free run of the place.”
Schreiber said her snowbird contingent is usually composed of 65% French Canadians from Quebec. “They’re the ones that are not coming because they can’t cross the border with their RVs.” The U.S.-Canadian border has been closed for months.
“My friends from the Northeast that typically come are coming,” she said. “But I am filling the void with domestic travelers. I am seeing more from the Midwest.”
She is also hosting people from Nevada and Utah, which is unusual. “The difference there is they are not staying three or four months. The traffic in and out of here is going to be four times what I’m used to.”
But Schreiber predicts the Canadians will tire of the cold and come to sunny Florida. “You can sit at home there in quarantine and have your groceries delivered in the snow. Or you can come here. That point gets them.”
Vacant second homes
Thus far, snowbird traffic also appears to be down from 2019 among second-home visitors in association-controlled communities, said Bruce Masia, a Broward County area regional vice president for KW Property Management,
“You can feel a lightness in the communities,” he said. “You usually see in the beginning of October an influx of people coming down. We’re definitely seeing less of that right now. It might pick up. Maybe people are hanging out to be with their families through Thanksgiving.”
The rise in COVID cases is a factor, he said.
“I think people are taking the precautions,” Masia said. “Florida is becoming hot again. We were very calm for the last four to six weeks. Now our numbers are rising again.”
“People are saying to themselves, ‘Where am I better off?’” he said. “’Am I better off staying where I am? Or am I better off coming to Florida?”’
Consumer services that monitor winter travel movements say people are cautiously hitting the road to shake off cabin fever from lockdowns and quarantines.
“The vast majority of people are concerned about the pandemic as we approach the holiday travel season,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for the Auto Club Group of Florida. But he added there is a “growing sense of confidence among some travelers.”
“There are those who are getting that pandemic fatigue. There are others who traveled in the summertime or recent months and feel they can do it safely,” he said.
According to a survey by 55Places, a Chicago-based service that helps people research retirement options, 58% of 1,099 respondents said the virus will play a role in their travel decisions and cause them to change their plans.
Of that group, 70% said they would take extra precautions by monitoring local public health benchmarks and adjust their plans if they felt uncomfortable with how the coronavirus was being dealt with at their destinations.
The Canadian border
A major factor in the traffic decline centers on the U.S.-Canada border, which remains closed to all non-essential land travel until at least Nov. 21.
The Canadian Snowbird Association, which says it serves as an advocate for more than 100,000 cross-border travelers, said it discussed the issue with government agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
“Ultimately, based on these discussions, the current travel restrictions at the land border crossings could possibly extend well into 2021,” the group said in a statement. “At this time, the only way in which Canadian citizens are permitted to travel to the United States is by air.”
Some restaurant owners who rely on snowbirds as regular winter customers are edgy about the thin flow of out-of-town visitors.
“They’re not here,” said Paul Mangiardi, owner of the Delacaseas Café in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. In past years, he said, “there were at least 10 couples” from Toronto, Quebec and the Boston area who would regularly dine at the café.
“If they were all here, we would be open for dinner,” he said. These days, the restaurant focuses on breakfast and lunch with occasional wine-with-dinner nights.
But there is some good news:
“We’ve had an increase in interest in traveling south,” said Cameron Munro, a 55Places regional sales manager.
Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, said, “We expect to see strong demand from both U.S. and Canadian travelers seeking a warm-weather respite this upcoming season.”
Amtrak said it has a favorable outlook for its Virginia-to-Florida Auto Train service, where seasonal travelers ride the rails with their cars.
“Bookings for the Auto Train this holiday and the upcoming snowbird travel season remain strong,” said spokeswoman Kimberly Woods. She said Auto Train “will remain a daily operation” despite cutbacks on other U.S. routes.
And Canadians, who are inveterate buyers of Florida real estate, remain interested in buying new homes and condos, agents say, although COVID-19 and the border closing combined to keep them on the sidelines of the current boom.
Todd Richardson, a vice president at P6, which is handling the sales of boutique luxury condos at the soon-to-be-built Royal Palm Residences in Boca Raton, said he has a customer-in-waiting from Toronto who has sized up the project online and is eager to travel to Florida to tour the sales gallery. He said she owns an older condo in town as a second residence and is looking for an upgrade.
But some are hedging their bets.
“Canadians are the outliers of this boom,” said Mike Pappas, CEO and president of The Keyes Co. “Our northern friends might not be flocking to South Florida as they did in the past because of the border issues.”
“We’re starting to see some of the Canadians that own second homes saying they may lease them this year, and others might sell,” he said.
Whoever ends up buying, it’s the new owner’s property tax payments that will help pay the cost of paradise.
©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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