Snowbird Fred Welsh hopes to be one of the first in line to cross the U.S. land border when it reopens on Nov. 8 to fully vaccinated Canadian travellers.
"If the border opens one minute after 12 a.m., we'll be in that line," said Welsh, 59, of Gillams, N.L. "I have a great passion for sunny weather."
After the United States closed its land border to non-essential travel in March 2020 and COVID-19 cases surged last fall, the majority of snowbirds turned up the thermostat and stayed put.
For Welsh, it was his first winter in Canada in eight years, and he had to buy a winter coat, boots and a snow blower. But now that he's fully vaccinated, Welsh is ready to return to Florida — even though the pandemic isn't over.
"The world can't stop," he said. "If you practise what you've been taught, washing your hands and keeping your facial coverings on, I don't anticipate any problems."
The Canadian Snowbird Association (CSA) estimates that about 30 per cent of Canada's more than one million snowbirds went south last winter. But this year, the CSA predicts about 90 per cent of them will travel south now that they're fully vaccinated and can drive across the border.
Snowbirds have been able to fly to the U.S. during the pandemic, but the CSA said most traditionally drive.
"A lot of them were uncomfortable with the idea of traveling by plane," spokesperson Evan Rachkovsky said. "Now that we have the land border opening up, they're determined to make the trip down south."
Snowbirds eye COVID-19 boosters
It's not just the sun that's luring snowbirds south.
Several, including Welsh, told CBC News that they plan to get a COVID-19 booster shot while in the U.S. Most provinces currently offer additional doses only to certain vulnerable groups. But the U.S. now offers boosters to all seniors to protect against waning immunity.
"If they're giving them away, we're taking them," Welsh said.
He plans to travel to Florida with seven friends in a caravan of three RVs. The group will take an eight-hour ferry ride to Nova Scotia and enter the U.S. via the border crossing in St. Stephen, N.B.
"I'm just excited," said fellow traveller Wade Kean, 59, of Culls Harbour, N.L. "I just can't wait to get on the road."
Welsh predicts long lineups at the border on Nov. 8, but he's determined to cross that day anyway.
"The sooner I get there, the better," he said. "It's kind of cold here in Newfoundland."
Is it OK to travel abroad?
Last year, the federal government made pleas to snowbirds to stay home during the pandemic. But Ottawa recently changed its tune — somewhat.
Last week, the government quietly lifted its advisory against non-essential travel abroad.
It was replaced with a recommendation that international travellers be fully vaccinated. At a news conference last week, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam also advised travellers to be mindful of their destination.
"Look at the risks involved in that travel journey and where you're heading to," she said. "The pandemic is very much alive."
Snowbirds David and Dianne Fine stayed home last winter in Hepworth, Ont., but they'll spend this winter in California and Arizona.
David said they felt more comfortable leaving the nest this year because they're fully vaccinated.
"I'm 68, and you only have so many years you can go down south," he said. "We're willing to play it safe and wear our masks and everything else to get the sun."
To beat the anticipated rush, the Fines flew to the U.S on Oct. 18 and shipped their RV — three weeks before the land border reopens.
"We just imagine it's going to be really crazy at the border — long, long wait times," Dianne, 67, said just before boarding a helicopter at the airport in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
To get around the closed land border, the Fines travelled with Great Lakes Helicopter, which flies snowbirds to the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., and ships their vehicles to the same location. After landing, snowbirds pick up their vehicles and drive south.
What are the new U.S. rules?
Land border travellers won't be required to take a test, but must be prepared to present proof of their vaccination upon request.
The U.S. has not yet said at what time the land border will reopen on Nov. 8 but promises that details will come soon.
When returning to Canada, recreational travellers must provide proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours before their return flight or planned arrival at the land border.
Canada will only accept a molecular test — such as a PCR test — which can cost upwards of $150.
At a news conference on Thursday, the Canadian Snowbird Association called for Ottawa to drop the pricey molecular test for fully vaccinated travellers.
"The time has come for the government to end these unnecessary barriers and return to affordable travel," said Michael MacKenzie, the CSA's executive director.
Tam said Canada is reviewing the test requirement but that it's staying in place for now as a precaution.
"Canada is still in many areas battling the fourth wave," she said.
There's a possibility the test requirement could be dropped by the spring, when many snowbirds return home.
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