Migrating south no more; snowbirds grounded by COVID

Merna Emara
Staff Writer

When the first whiff of crisp cold air hits the great white north, buckle up because winter is here. This marks the beginning of ice activities. Hockey players sharpen their blades, curlers get their brooms out and ice fishers lower their augers. Others get their nordic skies and snowshoes ready for long trail hikes. But snowbirds slide into their sandals and south they go. Whether by plane or car, their destination is sunny, warm and breezy.

According to a survey by Statistics Canada, the first quarter of 2019 saw a decrease of Canadians going to the United States and Mexico. StatCan released data showing that Canadians took about 54.2 million trips between January and March, which is a three per cent decrease compared to the first quarter of 2018.

While part of this decrease is attributed to heavy snowfalls that Canadians felt they would be more comfortable snuggled at home, next year’s data will be heavily attributed to COVID-19 and border closures.

Bob Tkachuk, 66, has been travelling to Palm Springs, California, with his wife Mary-Beth, 64, for 13 years. He said they usually rent a condo and stay there two to three months depending on the weather in Canada.

Tkachuk said they knew they would not be going south this winter when their vacation was cut short last year because of COVID-19. Tkachuk said even though they usually drive to Palm Springs and take their bicycles, golf clubs, tennis racquets and other paraphernalia, they decided they would not risk their health to fly south.

“We stay in Riverside County and Palm Springs was a hot COVID-19 spot that we just decided there’s no way we’re going to go even if we could fly,” Tkachuk said.

The Tkachuks were not the only ones with a vacation cut short. Kathy Pattison who also lives in Fort Frances said she has been flying to Scottsdale, Arizona, for five years with her husband, Wayne.

Pattison said even though they enjoy the warm weather and made good friends in Arizona, they decided to not take the risk because the United States does not seem to handle COVID-19 as Canada does.

Snowbirds do not only travel to the United States for the winter months.

Harry Bell, 79, has been travelling with his wife, Sharon, to Mexico for 20 years. Even though Mexico’s COVID-19 numbers were relatively lower than those in the United States, he said they still decided it would be safer to stay in Canada this year.

With the threat of contracting COVID-19 and suffering health complication still in sight, snowbirds will likely face a higher insurance quote in the coming years.

Lori Yorke, senior broker and owner of Medi-Quote, an insurance brokers company based in Winnipeg and Calgary, said they had to change all their previous policies and introduce new ones that included COVID-19.

“It did take insurance companies a while to figure out how to offer COVID-19 insurance and how to price it,” Yorke said. “In September we were able to start getting coverage for COVID-19 for people who were going to the United States for their various reasons and it’s been on the market since then.”

Yorke adds that they have had many people purchase COVID-19 coverage from them, but it is not nearly like it was in years prior.

As with any kind of insurance, snowbird coverage depends on age, underlying conditions, location of travel and duration of stay.

Yorke said they have to ask a lot of medical questions to anyone over 60 years of age because more health problems arise within this age bracket. Yorke said there is about a two per cent increase on all quotes every year.

However, regardless of age or any underlying health conditions, Yorke said COVID-19 coverage will add 10 per cent to the quote initially given.

That being said, a quote for a three-month vacation for a healthy person will be around $800, not taking into account the annual two per cent increase or COVID-19 coverage. Taking into account the annual percentage increase and COVID-19 coverage, an insurance quote could be about $910.

Pattison said although she and her husband get covered for the three months through her employment, she is unsure whether that will change next time they fly south.

“We’ve just been relying on that [coverage],” Pattison said. “But that’s all before COVID and we’ll have to make sure that COVID would be covered if you ended up getting it while we’re down there. We’re covered for basic stuff. I don’t know how COVID made a difference to that.”

However, Bell said getting snowbird insurance in the United States is more than that of Mexico.

“Mexico is even cheaper than the United States,” Bell said. “If you have to go to a doctor, it is cheaper there than it is here. Our coverage in the United States is quite a bit higher. You’re not completely covered all the time.”

Although this is the first year in at least a decade these snowbirds stayed in Canada, they said they are enjoying some activities while staying warm.

“My wife curls twice a week, we play squash and we live at reef points,” Tkachuk said. “We do a lot of walking on the trails or snowshoeing and I bought a snow machine. I’ve also been snowmobiling and we’ve been doing a lot of outdoor walking such hiking.”

Effective tomorrow, the federal government announced all returning Canadians have to quarantine for at least three days at a hotel upon arrival, costing one individual about $2,000. This news came as a surprise to many snowbirds who chose to leave Canada amidst the pandemic despite Canada’s many travel advisories.