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Alberta snowbirds weigh risks of southern escape this winter

With COVID-19 keeping borders shut for non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S. , snowbirds are weighing their options.
Mario Kokoryannis and Joan Snydmiller of Edmonton say the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted them to put their Palm Desert house up for sale. Photo supplied

While most Alberta snowbirds are in a holding pattern due to COVID-19, Edmonton couple Gord Derk and Joanne Berube have booked a flight to their Arizona home in early November.

“Once we got the (COVID) insurance coverage we were pretty confident going down there,” said Derk, adding the couple plans to stay in their retirement community near Phoenix until mid-April; a trip they've made for over a decade. Derk said the couple will follow COVID-19 protocols and have groceries delivered to their home.

“There’s a six per cent increase in the insurance cost, but it’s worth it,” said Derk, who reports getting full coverage even with the federal government’s travel advisory in effect.

On the other hand, Brian and Lori Paush's winter plans remain up in the air due to concerns related to COVID-19.

"We want to make sure we have sufficient COVID-19 coverage. We would go down if we could be guaranteed of that," said Brian, adding the couple is still hopeful they’ll travel to their house in Mesquite, Nevada, just like they have for the past eight years.

The Paush's have out-of-country medical insurance, but--as with many carriers--it does not include COVID-19 coverage while Canada's travel advisory remains in effect.

"We usually drive but we can't right now." said Lori, adding that flying is a bit of a concern. "All the snowbirds we have spoken with over the past week are not travelling to the U.S. for the foreseeable future."

A wary public

Alain Forget, head of sales and business development for RBC Bank, said many snowbirds are biding their time in order to properly assess border issues and the threat of COVID-19 in the U.S. before deciding when they’ll depart and for how long they’ll stay.

“Instead of staying the entire winter, some are looking to come in January or February,” said Forget. “But others are concerned about paying the costs that go with owning U.S. real estate (insurance, management fees, property tax) without being able to use it.”

The majority of Canadian snowbirds own vacation homes and condos located in California, Arizona and Florida, with an estimated 350,000 Canadians spending between three and six months in Florida alone. 

Other players are taking action to lure snowbirds their way. Osoyoos, B.C., for example, is putting out the call for snowbirds to head to the hottest spot in Canada, touting the option of warm weather without having to leave the country. And both Air Canada and Westjet are including free COVID-19 insurance as part of their flights and vacation packages to spots like the Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe--for short visits.

Craig and Janet Martin of Strathcona County say they will not visit their winter home in Gilbert, Arizona--not yet."We will not go back until there is a vaccine," said Martin, adding they are concerned about the large number of COVID-19 cases in the Phoenix area. 

"Arizona is considered a COVID hot spot. We have no desire to be stupid," said Martin. "We will stay put this winter, spending more time with the grandkids on Lego projects."

Edmontonians Wendy Munson and Tom Walsh, both in their 60s, are undecided about plans to stay at their home near Tampa Bay, Florida. The couple has visited the area every winter for decades, and owned a home in Palmetto since 2016.

"At this point we are doubtful," said Munson, adding, "We will go there without a vaccine but we won't go there without COVID-19 insurance."

Joan Snydmiller and Mario Kokoryannis of Edmonton have put their home in Palm Desert up for sale--largely due to COVID-19.

"Seventy per cent of our decision is due to COVID," said Snydmiller, adding that the couple won't be able to rent out their California property in the current climate, a revenue generator they have held for nearly a decade.

Snydmiller said while they haven’t heard of any of their Canadian neighbours selling, none of their fellow snowbirds have booked a getaway for this winter either.

“Everyone is waiting for now,” she said.

Insurance options

Darcy Hordichuk, a former NHL player based in Scottsdale, Arizona, operates the Facebook service platform He said once the weather turns colder, more people will likely make the decision to go south.

“There was paranoia and panic back in the spring but now people are in more of a holding pattern," said Hordichuk, who said he is not concerned about the number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, but does admit "too many people treat it like it’s the flu."

While offers COVID-19 travel insurance through its online platform, Medipac is another company offering COVID-19 out-of-country medical coverage. Endorsed by the Canadian Snowbird Association, Medipac's website ( says that during COVID-19, pre-existing condition clauses and other policy terms continue to apply.

"For many Canadians, travel is indeed essential; as is proper coverage for medical emergencies, including those related to COVID-19," said a Medipac spokesperson.

Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada executive director Will McAleer said it’s crucial snowbirds examine their policies closely.

"It is important to recognize that some COVID-19 policies only cover this specific risk, and therefore, will not necessarily provide the same benefits as a typical travel insurance policy," he said.

For federal government travel information go to: