Snowbirds are heading to Florida and Arizona despite the Delta variant

Plenty of snowbirds stayed home last year. This year, they’re making plans to go south despite Covid-19 outbreaks in warm-weather states.

  • By Clare Ansberry,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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The annual migration for many snowbirds is weeks away, but the Covid-19 waves in warm-weather locales like Florida and Arizona are causing some seasonal residents to rethink travel plans. Others say they’re determined to make the trip after missing a season in the sun.

Fully vaccinated and equipped with latex gloves to pump gas, Robert Slack and his wife, Lois Slack, plan to drive 1,400 miles from their Ontario, Canada, home to Winter Haven, Fla.

“Last year, we sat home and watched the snow come down,” says Mr. Slack, 79 years old. The Delta variant is a concern, but the couple hopes infection rates will fall by the end of October. They also bought a supplemental travel health-insurance package to cover up to $5 million in Covid-19 related medical costs. Once in Florida, he says they will continue to wear masks.

A growing number of people, many now vaccinated, expect to head south for the winter despite the Delta variant spread. About 90% of the estimated 1 million snowbirds who travel annually from Canada, say they will head for warmer areas compared with 30% last year, assuming the land border reopens to nonessential travel later this month. Land border restrictions remain in place through Sept. 21 and may be extended.

In Texas, a favorite destination for snowbirds from the upper Midwest, mobile-home parks are booking singers, dancers, comedians, Elvis impersonators and pickpocket showmen.

“We call them Wintertainers,” says Dan Brunson, who publishes Winter Texan Times, a free weekly distributed to mobile homes and RV parks in the Rio Grande Valley. Mr. Brunson says many parks canceled entertainment last year because of liability concerns as well as social distancing and crowd-size restrictions. “They’re planning for a recovery year,” he says.

Rebecca W. Acosta, a registered nurse and executive director of Traveler’s Medical Service in New York, which offers pre-travel consultation and other services, says that although the Covid-19 vaccine makes travel safer, risks remain. That is especially true for those with pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, and those with destinations in states with high Covid-19 infection rates.

If hospitals in an area get overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, they may not have intensive-care beds for someone who has a heart attack or stroke, she says.

“Everything has a Covid overlay,” she says. She suggests seasonal travelers consult data tracker maps available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to monitor infection rates and hospital or ICU occupancy in counties where they are traveling.

Donna and Jim Jacko, who live outside Cleveland, debated taking their annual trip to Panama City Beach, Fla., last year. Eventually, they decided to go. Warmer weather is better for her asthma and for Jim’s exercise routine.

“I didn’t want to live with him during the winter if he couldn’t get out of the house,” says Donna, noting that her husband has competed in several Ironman competitions and regularly runs, swims and bikes. They figured they could practice the same safety protocols in Florida that they do at home—masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds—but with the benefit of a beach and sunshine.

Now fully vaccinated, they plan to leave for Florida in October.

Tom Luzzi, who owns an Arizona-based home-watch service, says most of his 250 snowbird customers are in a holding pattern. Canadian customers are waiting to see if the land border opens so they can drive across, rather than fly and rent a car for six months. Canadians can fly into the U.S., regardless of vaccination status, as long as they present proof of a negative Covid-19 test administered during the three days before their travel.

Mr. Luzzi’s American customers—mainly from Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin—are watching the Delta variant.

“They’re asking ‘Do I want to come out to Arizona and risk my health?’” says Mr. Luzzi, who owns Arizona Snowbird Home Service in Queen Creek.

At this point, he expects about 40% of his customers will return this year—low but better than the 2020-21 season, when only 18% made it down. Some customers ended up selling their homes, saying they could use money from the sale for future trips to Mexico, Europe or Hawaii.

Fewer snowbirds generally hurt the region’s grocery stores and restaurants, but his business boomed. “My income stream doubled,” says Mr. Luzzi, who was inspecting homes all 12 months, charging $38 for each standard visit, which includes taking photos, flushing toilets and writing a report.

Another species of seasonal traveler is expected to pick up some of the slack from reluctant snowbirds: Zoombirds.

Angela Durko, a professor of tourism at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, describes them as remote workers, ages 25 to 50, who head south for better weather, renting homes or apartments or staying with relatives.

“They are usually coming from places that are more expensive to live,” says Dr. Durko. She teaches remotely while living in St. Petersburg, Fla., with family members and considers herself a Zoombird. She and her husband, a commercial pilot, sold their Texas home in June, along with most of their belongings. “We don’t have children. We have dogs. It works for us,” she says.

Valorie Crooks, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studies snowbird migrations and healthcare implications, says many feel safer heading south because they can exercise outside and shop at open-air mails. Others, especially those who live in recreational vehicles, travel because many Canadian RV parks close in winter. Groceries and utilities can be less expensive in southern regions, too.

Dr. Crooks’s own snowbird parents are wary about making the trip this year.

“The numbers in Florida are still too high,” says Barb Crooks, 73, of Ontario, referring to the state’s Covid-19 infection rate. She usually spends winter with her husband at their home outside Venice, Fla.

She says they might decide to go after New Year’s if case rates fall. Her husband likes to bike, and they’ve made friends in their Florida residential community. “But we’re seriously thinking about selling,” she says.

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