Bob Slack typically spends his winters swinging golf clubs rather than swinging a snow shovel.
Last winter, Slack and his wife Lois stayed in Canada to hibernate for the first time in more than two decades rather than fleeing the snow to visit their part-time home in the aptly named Winter Haven.
It wasn’t entirely voluntary.
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The Slacks were among hundreds of thousands of Canadian snowbirds who had their wings clipped last winter and who remained in the Great White North due to border restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The US has been banning land crossings for unnecessary travel from Canada since March 2020.
Although Canada opened its land crossings to vaccinated Americans on Monday, the US extended its ban until at least August 21st.
“There is a sense of frustration among us Snowbirds,” Slack said recently over the phone from his home in Athens, Ontario. “We are currently making plans for the upcoming travel season. Will we be able to drive? I am optimistic that by the fall, if we are ready to go, the US land border will be open for non-essential travel. We hope so. “
About 900,000 Canadians live part of the year in Florida and other southern states, according to the director of the Canadian Snowbird Association for the province of Quebec, as reported by Agence France-Presse.
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Bob Slack, 78, and Lois, 77, spent the winter in Polk County after buying a spot in an industrial community in 1998. The couple usually arrive in late October or early November and return to Canada in mid-April.
As concerns about the novel coronavirus increased in 2020, the couple traveled north earlier than usual, just before the United States and Canada both halted non-essential land crossings at their borders.
When autumn hit, the only option for Canadian snowbirds was to take a flight to the United States and have a vehicle shipped south if they wanted. About 70% of them chose to stay in Canada last winter, said Slack, the former president and current board member of the Canadian Snowbird Association.
Slack, a retired elementary school principal, and Lois, a retired teacher, live about 30 minutes from the New York border crossing at the Thousand Islands Bridge. Slack said it would have cost about $ 1,700 to ship a vehicle to Florida on top of airfare.
What did Slack miss most while wintering in Florida?
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“I miss the golf course,” he said. “I’ve been an active golfer since we were there. I miss the warm winter weather and the sun. It’s much healthier than living here and probably also much safer physically because you don’t have to worry about falling on ice or anything like that. “
He added, “And we made some good friends in Florida, Canadians and Americans. That’s why we also miss these friendships. “
Fortunately for Slack, it was an unusually mild winter in eastern Ontario.
“I was prepared for the worst,” he said. “The last time we were here in winter was in 2000 and I think we were here in January and we had a lot of snow and a lot of ice that year. I had expected a lot, but we experienced a mild winter this year. “
Slack said he and his wife had someone to regularly check their Florida home for potential issues. About two-thirds of the homes in the Winter Haven parish are year-round residents, he said.
Stuck in Kingston
Ann Harkness and her husband Steve have fled Canada for the past 17 years to spend the winter in Polk County. The couple, who own a home at Four Lakes Golf Club in Winter Haven, typically arrive in October and return in April.
“Last winter was the first winter we ever missed and it was entirely due to COVID,” said Ann Harkness, 71.
Instead of relaxing in Winter Haven, the couple stayed in Kingston, Ontario, just across the St. Lawrence River in New York State. Ann Harkness said she knew other Canadian snowbirds flew to Florida and had their vehicles transported.
“We knew this was another option – we could have had a company bring a car across the border and we could have flown,” she said. “Just because the pandemic was so bad at the time, we just thought ‘no’. And I know we could have gotten vaccinated much earlier down there than up here. But only given the health risks, we thought – just stay here and get this pandemic under control. But who would have thought it would take so long? “
Harkness said she and her husband were considering flying downstairs for a short stay in March or April, but even then the prevalence of COVID-19 in Polk County put them off.
Like Slack, Harkness said she longed to be on a sun-kissed golf course all winter. Her husband usually plays six days a week while she is in Winter Haven, and she plays five days.
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Harkness said Canadians were in no hurry to resume pre-pandemic life when cases declined in the spring.
“We’re still in slow motion up here,” she said. “Our shops are not fully functional again and we are wearing masks everywhere. They are mandatory and if you don’t wear them you will be fined. It’s a hefty fine and people here aren’t complaining about it. Yes, they are fed up with wearing masks, but they don’t want to get the virus either. “
Harkness said she and her husband could opt for air travel and shipping a vehicle if the land border stays closed in October.
“We are both fully vaccinated now and we hope that our border will be opened so we can cross the country because they need a car there and they cannot rent a car for six months,” she said. “We’ll judge that when autumn approaches, but for now we hope we can come in October.”
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The previous border restrictions have not caused many Canadians to sell their Polk County winter homes, said Kim O’Dell, broker at Snowbird Living Mobile Home Sales in Lakeland. O’Dell’s company sells properties in more than 40 industrial parks, primarily in Lakeland, Mulberry and Auburndale.
“They’re sagging because they love coming to Florida,” said O’Dell. “They love to escape winter. I think I had a Canadian that was sold last year and that’s one of many. We sell over 150 homes a year and we really have very few Canadians putting their homes on the market. “
In fact, O’Dell said Canadians continued to buy homes in Polk County throughout the pandemic, even when the border was closed to Canadian drivers.
“You keep telling them it opens and then they close it again,” O’Dell said. “But despite the many times they’ve been told, everyone thought they were going to sell their houses and they aren’t, which is a good thing. You don’t want to give up the warm weather. “
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @ garywhite13.