FORT LAUDER-DALE, Fla. — As if COVID-19 hasn't done enough damage to South Florida's tourism industry, many Canadians who for years have wintered in the Sunshine State are having second thoughts about migrating south unless the pandemic shows signs of abating.
"There are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are on the sidelines planning not to visit Florida this year due to COVID," said Alain Forget, who heads sales and business development at RBC Bank, a subsidiary of Royal Bank of Canada.
Their decision, he said, is contingent on how much longer the U.S.-Canadian border remains shut or if Florida's COVID-19 cases rise in the next few months.
Stacy Ritter, CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that while it's difficult to predict the travel plans of Canadians in Florida, the outlook does not appear promising.
"Until the border reopens, it's clearly going to have a less-than-positive impact on tourism from Canada," she said.
As of Friday, Canada had recorded 135,000 cases and 9,163 deaths, numbers that pale before the 6.42 million cases and about 200,000 deaths in the U.S.
Florida, which is ranked third among the 50 states in cases, had 655,000, or roughly five times the number of cases in Canada.
Those vast disparities have resulted in the border remaining closed to nonessential travel for nearly six months, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau routinely granting monthly extensions. The latest runs through Monday.
For Florida, the economic stakes are high. According to a survey published in 2018 by the Canadian government,, the Canadian-Florida trade relationship was worth $7.3 billion in 2017. Among the other highlights quoted in U.S. dollars:
n Florida exported $3.1 billion worth of services to Canada annually.
n By 2017, Canadian investors had brought almost 500 Canadian companies to Florida, directly employing about 43,000 people.
n An estimated 3.5 million Canadians visited Florida in 2017, increasing their spending to $6.5 billion from $6 billion.
n Canadian tourism generated more than half a billion dollars in state tax revenue, more than enough to fund the public safety, transportation and library systems of Florida's major counties.
n Canadians purchased more than $7 billion worth of real estate in Florida, contributing to a Canadian real estate portfolio in Florida worth $53 billion.
Since 2006, when South Florida home values plummeted ahead of the Great Recession, Canadians have snatched up the region's residential properties by the thousands. By 2012, a South Florida Sun Sentinel analysis found that more than 18,000 Canadians owned homes in Broward County — many of them beachfront condominiums in Hollywood and Hallandale Beach.
Forget said RBC is still hearing from Canadians who are interested in Florida properties. But they're touring virtually from the safety of their homes in Canada. Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, Canadians were the top buyers of Florida real estate among foreign investors.
But anecdotally, the deal volume hasn't come close to matching pre-pandemic levels among a group of inveterate buyers.
Larry Tolchinsky, a Hallandale Beach attorney who has helped Canadians close real estate deals for more than a decade, says that segment of his law practice has slowed to a crawl. Previously, he received client references from lawyers in Canada.
"I'm not getting as many calls as I usually do," he said. "I haven't heard much. The last I have had contact with anyone was right before we were shutting down."
Another telltale sign: "There's no Canadian license plates. I don't see any."
In an interview, Susan Harper, the Canadian consul general in Miami, said many snowbirds want to know what they will encounter if they choose to come to Florida.
"Are they going to feel welcome; are they going to feel safe?" she said. "We've already been contacted by some of them."
Besides the virus, they are concerned about their ability to buy travel insurance that contains coverage for COVID-19, which is expensive.
"It's tough to gauge the number of Canadians who will actually come to Florida," Harper said. "It's certainly a tough year, but (Florida has) great relationships with the Canadians.
"With the economic base that we have built between us, we know it is going to be important to keep that relationship growing," she said.
Many Canadians hastily retreated to Canada just before the border closed in March and the nation's airlines stopped flying to Florida.
A July survey by the Ipsos Reid polling firm in Toronto found that eight in 10 Canadians want the border to stay shut until at least the end of this year.
The Canadian government is also advising its citizens to avoid traveling abroad because of the pandemic. If they do leave the country, they will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon returning home.
Oddly, despite the ban on cross-border travel by car, bus or train, it is still possible for travelers to board a plane in Toronto or Montreal, and in three hours find themselves in Fort Lauderdale. Both Air Canada and WestJet — the predominant carriers in Canada — resumed service to Florida in May.
But a slight downturn in month-to-month COVID cases has some real estate brokers believing it won't be long before the snowbirds start flying south.
"No Realtor down here is bragging about a lot of Canada sales at the moment," said Craig Studnicky, CEO of ISG in Miami. "But you give this one month and you are going to see Canadians come here. The number of new COVID cases is a little more tame now than it was in July."
For some, the decision to head south may come down to the brutal bite of Canada's winter weather.
"January in Ottawa? I've been there," Harper said. "A lot of people are going to have that same reflection in January 2021."