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Should Canadian snowbirds head south this winter or stay put? Why one Ontario couple decided to skip the trip to Florida

Should Canadian snowbirds head south this winter or stay put? Why one Ontario couple decided to skip the trip to Florida
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Should they or shouldn’t they spend the winter in the United States? After regularly monitoring the news and COVID-19 trends south of the border, Ontario retiree Bob Bovaird and his wife Gabrielle decided last week that they won’t be heading to Florida and its warmer weather this winter. Their debate is one echoing throughout the Canadian snowbird community .

The Bovairds, who live in Colborne, have a home in a seniors’ community north of Tampa. They are concerned about the numbers and practices they see unfolding in the United States generally and in Florida in particular.

“We’ve been going for the entire winter for 17 years, but this is the right decision this year.”

The Bovairds are fortunate. They have an American neighbour in Florida who checks their house there regularly and will adjust the temperature as needed. They’ve shut off their other utilities and they’ve negotiated an extension on their TV package, since they won’t be using it this winter.

Not every Canadian snowbird is that lucky, and there are many of them. In 2019 alone, Canadians spent $8 billion purchasing property in the U.S., 42 per cent of them buying property in Florida, says the U.S. National Association of Realtors.

“If you’re looking to sell and rethinking your lifestyle across the border, I suggest you obtain advice from a legal or tax specialist with experience in cross-border issues,” Forget said, “and, if you’re thinking to rent, be sure to check your homeowners’ association’s bylaws, in addition to tax and legal implications.

“A third option, however, is to unlock some of your home equity in U.S. dollars” — through a , or HELOC. That’s a term loan that can be employed on a revolving basis like a credit card, but it uses your home equity as collateral. Many banks make them available to homeowners.

“The interest rate is very low at the moment, and, once you are approved, the HELOC is available for a 10-year period. It’s a timely option,” says Forget. “You only pay interest monthly and only for the money you use. Why pay an exchange premium to pay for your U.S. expenses?”

HELOCs generally have no minimum monthly draw, balance or usage requirements, and RBC, for example, allows users to borrow up to 80 per cent of a home’s value.

Meanwhile, as the debate about relocating this winter continues in homes across Ontario, Elliott Silverstein, director of government relations and insurance for CAA South Central Ontario, says that the Canadian Automobile Association is advising against spending the winter in the U.S., even though flights are still operating. Although the land borders are closed to non-essential travel, some Canadian snowbirds are having their vehicles trucked across the border and flying over to collect them in order to drive south.

The travel insurance industry is divided on covering COVID-19 outside Canada. CAA won’t offer the coverage while there is a level three or four federal travel advisory in place, but other companies, such as Manulife, now have plans that include COVID-19 available.

Silverstein says that even if COVID-19 insurance is available, accessing care could be complicated. He is also in charge of CAA’s travel insurance program, so he knows ins and outs.

“Our focus has been to adhere to Global Affairs Canada advisories and they’re at level three now, a point where health care coverage becomes complex,” Silverstein said. “It’s challenging to promote international travel when the government strongly advises against it.

“Many people have the itch to travel, but if you get COVID-19, it may be difficult to get medical care, and repatriation when you’re ill and need support could be difficult; there’s no guarantee that there will be transportation or that your destination will have services available.”

Silverstein said it isn’t a decision that CAA made lightly, but “the entire mandate of our organization is safety.”

For those who do decide to head south this winter there’s plenty of road safety advice available from Dave Hunter, a Mississauga-based travel writer and author of “Along Interstate 75: the Florida Snowbirds’ Bible,” now in its 20th edition.

He wrote his travel guide in 1997 to give snowbirds all the information they need to enjoy the sights along their route and know what to expect at each exit when they stop for gas, food and lodging. Hunter’s website, available to anyone who buys the book and registers their purchase, now offers extensive information on travelling from Detroit to Florida safely during COVID-19.

For example, Hunter advocates getting a hospital-quality (HEPA) air filter for your vehicle to filter out the minuscule aerosol particles that the car’s own system doesn’t handle; he discusses the proper way to remove the plastic gloves that he advocates using each time you fill your tank with gas; and he explains how soap disarms COVID-19’s spiky molecules.

“When I returned from Florida in April, I spent three months researching COVID-19 and necessary safety precautions,” Hunter said. “I can keep people safe all the way there, but besides my advice, they also need to use situational awareness and change their approach if something isn’t quite right.”

Will Hunter and his wife, Kathy, be using these well-researched tips this winter?

“No,” Hunter said. “I know we could do it, but I’d rather stay here and help my readers who decide to go.

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“As a travel writer who regularly reads five Florida papers, I’m not comfortable with what’s happening there. There’s a lack of understanding about the dangers of COVID-19.”

Bovaird, who’ll be remaining in Colborne for the first winter in 18 years, puts it this way: “I’m not looking forward to this winter, but I’ll find my long johns.”
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