Returning Snowbirds Ride Out Quarantine in Canada’s RV Parks

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Campground owner Luc Choquette is seeing something he never does in the chilly early spring of Quebec: campers.

Snowbirds — the colloquial term for tens of thousands of elderly Canadians who flee harsh winters for the southern U.S. or Mexico — are returning early at the urging of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders. Some lack a permanent residence to wait out the mandatory self-quarantine, so Choquette opened his campground near the U.S. border more than a month ahead of schedule.

In Quebec, seniors confining themselves to RVs and trailers despite freezing outdoor temperatures is all part of the effort to contain the relentless spread of the coronavirus. The province has 23% of Canada’s population but nearly half of its 11,268 cases of Covid-19.

That has led to some of the strictest measures in Canada, including police checkpoints on highways that bring travelers from Ontario and New Brunswick. Quebec authorities ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses last week, but carved out the campground exception for snowbirds, opening up 641 spots for residents to self-quarantine.

Some of Quebec’s virus toll is down to timing. Schools had a scheduled break in early March, so families went on vacation before new rules closed the Canada-U.S. border to tourists. For authorities who want to minimize new imported cases, the return of the snowbirds represents a new complication.

“It’s very, very important: You are at risk, so you stay home,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault urged them last week during a press conference. His government commissioned local actors, comedians and athletes to make videos reinforcing the quarantine message.

Avoid the Grandkids

Officials in other provinces have also been cranking up the pressure on travelers after hearing “about people who think that this self-isolation rule for 14 days upon arrival is some kind of a vague general hint or suggestion,” said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. The federal government now threatens prison and as much as C$750,000 ($530,000) in fines for not respecting instructions.

Self-isolation “does not mean going to the grocery store. It does not mean going to the kennel to pick up your dog,” Kenney said in a message directed at snowbirds during a March 23 press conference. “It does not mean dropping your RV off at a service company to be serviced. It does not mean going and visiting the grandkids.”

There is no official data for snowbirds, though Statistics Canada said 336,000 Canadians visited the U.S. or Mexico for 21 days or more in the first quarter of 2018, nearly 1% of the population. Michael MacKenzie, the executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association, estimates that about 200,000 stay in the U.S. the whole winter.

Some of those live in campgrounds or trailer parks during the Canadian summer. “I decided to open to help out snowbirds who were looking for a place,” Choquette said. Cooped up in their recreational vehicles for 14 days at his campground in Frelighsburg, a picturesque village 60 miles from Montreal, “they are finding it long.”

Ken Hewitt, the mayor of Ontario’s Haldimand County, said Trudeau’s plea for residents to return left him no choice but to allow the community’s 23 seasonal parks to open early. “If you’re telling Canadians to come home and their home is a trailer park, well, we have to make provisions so that they can be there,” he said in a phone interview.

Anxious residents have been keeping an eye out for snowbirds who aren’t heeding the rules. A supermarket in Saint-Felicien, Quebec, alerted clients on Facebook that it had stopped a snowbird returning from the U.S. who was trying to buy groceries. The post, which included a photo of the customer’s massive vehicle barred with a red cross, attracted more than 1,000 comments and 1,400 likes.

Some 500 miles south-east from there, in neighboring New Brunswick, snowbird Dave Walker says he and his wife have been following government orders “religiously,” staying in their home in the city of Fredericton and relying on their daughter for groceries since driving back from the U.S. two weeks ago. Their planned two-month stay in Florida and South Carolina was cut short by about 10 days.

Walker, 70, said he thought the Canadian government was taking the situation more seriously than the U.S. at the time. There were also rumors that the health insurance he bought for travel would stop coverage after March 23. Around them, some stores were starting to close.

“We were getting the impression that we should head for home, so we did,” he said.

— With assistance by Kevin Orland

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