Snow­birds de­bate mak­ing south­ern mi­gra­tion dur­ing COVID-19 cri­sis

The cross-border life­style of Cana­dian snow­birds is snarled in health risks caught up by the pan­demic’s road block

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - ARTS & LIFE - ADINA BRESGE

A cou­ple of years ago, Re­nee Huart-field and her hus­band packed up their lives in Brace­bridge, Ont., in pur­suit of the re­tirees’ dream.

And for a while, they were liv­ing it. The cou­ple loaded most of their worldly pos­ses­sions into a trailer, and with their two golden retriev­ers in tow, started split­ting their time be­tween two pic­turesque des­ti­na­tions. Dur­ing the warm months, they re­treated to their home along the red bluffs of Lit­tle Pond, P.E.I. And when the Mar­itime cold sets in, they hit the road and head for the sun­shine of Florida’s Gulf Coast at their other prop­erty in En­gle­wood.

But now, Huart-field says she’s among the many snow­birds whose cross-border life­styles have been de­railed by the COVID-19 pan­demic. And de­spite hav­ing two homes, the 63-year-old says nei­ther seems like a suit­able place to wait out the win­ter months.

Last Fri­day, au­thor­i­ties an­nounced that the par­tial clo­sure of Canada’s border with the U.S. will be ex­tended un­til Oct. 21. While the re­stric­tions don’t ap­ply to en­try to the U.S. by plane, land cross­ings are lim­ited to es­sen­tial travel.

Huart-field and her hus­band aren’t keen on fly­ing be­cause of their ca­nine com­pan­ions, so if the rules re­main in place, it seems like head­ing to Florida is off the ta­ble. And at their age, Huart-field said brav­ing the cold by them­selves on the re­mote shores of P.E.I. also doesn’t seem fea­si­ble.

The cou­ple is con­tem­plat­ing a re­turn to On­tario, or per­haps find­ing a rental in Charlottet­own. But amid all the un­cer­tainty about travel rules, in­surance cov­er­age and pub­lic health risks, Huart-field said Canada’s snow­bird com­mu­nity has been left with­out many good op­tions.

“Peo­ple sort of think well, gee, must be nice to have that dilemma. But it’s not, “said Huart-field. “As you get older, the win­ters be­come harder ... It’s a health thing.”

Dr. Monika Dutt, a pub­lic health physi­cian based in Syd­ney, N.S., said snow­birds have a host of health con­cerns to con­sider in de­cid­ing whether to mi­grate south this win­ter.

Snow­birds tend to be older, so they’re more likely to have un­der­ly­ing health con­di­tions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19 com­pli­ca­tions, said Dutt.

Many pop­u­lar win­ter des­ti­na­tions, in­clud­ing sev­eral U.S. states such as Florida and Cal­i­for­nia, have strug­gled to con­tain their COVID-19 out­breaks, she said. Rel­a­tively speak­ing, Dutt said many parts of Canada have been more ef­fec­tive at re­duc­ing rates of in­fec­tion.

But there are other health fac­tors to con­sider, said Dutt, ones that can’t be mea­sured by a com­par­i­son of new COVID-19 cases on ei­ther side of the border.

Be­tween phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing pre­cau­tions and icy con­di­tions that can limit mo­bil­ity, Dutt said many older Cana­di­ans may suf­fer from iso­la­tion this win­ter. This can in­crease their risk of falls, cog­ni­tive de­cline and sub­stance use, she said. To make in­formed win­ter plans, Dutt rec­om­mends that snow­birds fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s travel ad­vi­sories, pub­lic health mea­sures at their in­tended des­ti­na­tion and quar­an­tine re­quire­ments upon ar­rival and re­turn.

“You need to de­cide is it bet­ter for you to be at home where you’re po­ten­tially near sup­port and fam­ily and a health-care sys­tem that you know you can de­pend on, ver­sus be­ing some­where else in the world?”

Karen Palmer, an in­de­pen­dent health pol­icy an­a­lyst and ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity, also said it’s crit­i­cal that snow­birds con­sider the per­ils of re­ly­ing on a for­eign health-care sys­tem.

Some ju­ris­dic­tions may not have the med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture to treat an in­flux of in­ter­na­tional pa­tients, which could pose a risk to trav­ellers and lo­cal pop­u­la­tions, said Palmer. More­over, Palmer urged snow­birds to pur­chase travel in­surance, and read the fine print to en­sure the pol­icy comes with com­pre­hen­sive health cov­er­age.

“By that I mean ev­ery word of the pol­icy, word for word, and make sure that you un­der­stand what is in­cluded and what is ex­cluded.”

In the U.S., Palmer said hospi­tal bills can run into the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars, and pro­vin­cial health in­surance plans of­fer lim­ited out-of­coun­try cov­er­age, par­tic­u­larly for trips that con­tra­vene fed­eral travel rec­om­men­da­tions.

Some in­surance providers, in­clud­ing Man­ulife and Medi­pac, are rolling out travel poli­cies that prom­ise emer­gency med­i­cal cov­er­age for COVID-19 and re­lated con­di­tions.

In a July ad­vi­sory, the Cana­dian Life and Health In­surance As­so­ci­a­tion told con­sumers to con­tact their in­sur­ers be­fore they cross the border for more in­for­ma­tion about their cov­er­age.

But Palmer warns that most poli­cies come with pro­vi­sos that could leave snow­birds in the lurch if they get in­fected. For ex­am­ple, she said there are of­ten ex­emp­tions for peo­ple with pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, and cer­tain COVID-19 com­pli­ca­tions may not be cov­ered.

“Just be­cause you could travel doesn’t mean you should travel,” Palmer said. “It may be the year to give a re­ally hard think about whether you should go. Maybe find an­other way to stay sane through the win­ter, or at least de­lay it un­til we have a re­ally strong sense of where COVID is go­ing.”

The pres­i­dent of Snow­bird Ad­vi­sor, an on­line re­source for Cana­di­ans in­ter­ested in cross­bor­der liv­ing, said he hasn’t seen the same level of sea­sonal plan­ning as in pre­vi­ous years.

“We don’t think it’s ap­pro­pri­ate for any­body to be en­cour­ag­ing any­body to travel right now, or nec­es­sar­ily dis­cour­ag­ing,” Stephen Fine said. “What we try to do, and we hope that others do the same, is pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to al­low in­di­vid­u­als to make their own choice.”

A sig­nif­i­cant share of snow­birds drive across the border each year, so the par­tial clo­sure of the U.s.-canada land border has proved to be a pow­er­ful hur­dle for many peo­ple, said Fine. Some snow­birds are hir­ing ser­vices to ship their cars south, he said, but that isn’t an op­tion for every­one.

Among those most af­fected by the travel re­stric­tions are peo­ple who lack per­ma­nent win­ter hous­ing in Canada, in­stead opt­ing to live in sum­mer cot­tages or mo­bile homes, said Fine.

Some snow­birds are cam­paign­ing for au­thor­i­ties to open up the land border to peo­ple who live in the U.S. sea­son­ally. Nei­ther Global Af­fairs Canada nor U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion di­rectly ad­dressed ques­tions about whether such ex­cep­tions were un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

With so much un­cer­tainty swirling, Fine said most snow­birds are tak­ing a “wait and see” ap­proach to their plans for the sea­son. But he said there are pas­sion­ate fac­tions on ei­ther side of the stay-or-go de­bate.

Some hold­outs want to see how the U.S. elec­tion un­folds this Novem­ber, while others say they don’t trust Amer­i­can of­fi­cials to ef­fec­tively con­tain the COVID-19 cri­sis, re­gard­less of the polls. And as they age, the po­ten­tial health risks out­weigh the ben­e­fits of sun­bathing in Fe­bru­ary.

“We’ll cer­tainly miss the warm weather. There’s no ques­tion about that,” said Elmer Brooker, 89, on his and his wife’s de­ci­sion to en­dure the Edmonton win­ter rather than mak­ing their an­nual pil­grim­age to Cal­i­for­nia. “There’s no point in pok­ing your head into dan­ger when you know that it’s there.”

But swaths of other snow­birds seem de­ter­mined to head south this win­ter.

As some of these sun­seek­ers see it, both Canada and the U.S. will have to re­in­state strict pub­lic health mea­sures if a sec­ond coro­n­avirus wave hits. And if that’s the case, they’d rather be house­bound by the beach than snowed in closer to home.

Cory Char­ron, 49, of Ot­tawa said he and his wife aren’t naive about the dan­gers of trav­el­ling to their prop­erty in Punta Gorda, Fla., dur­ing a pan­demic, but they also have to con­sider their health con­di­tions that are wors­ened by the cold climate.

It’s not like the cou­ple will be able to en­joy their usual Florida fare, said Char­ron. Cruises, restau­rants and com­mu­nity get-to­geth­ers are all off the ta­ble.

“Just like I do here in Ot­tawa, I’m go­ing to be in my house. I’m go­ing to iso­late. I’m go­ing to go to the gro­cery store. I’m go­ing to go for a walk,” he said. “The dif­fer­ence is I won’t be go­ing for a walk in the freez­ing cold.”

“You need to de­cide is it bet­ter for you to be at home where you’re po­ten­tially near sup­port and fam­ily and a health-care sys­tem that you know you can de­pend on, ver­sus be­ing some­where else in the world?”

DR. MONIKA DUTT

PUB­LIC HEALTH PHYSI­CIAN

GUY FORTIN THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Re­nee Huart-field and her hus­band, Mike Field, are pic­tured out­side their home in Lit­tle Pond, P.E.I.

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