An Amtrak train pulls out of the Fort Lauderdale station. The rail line’s Auto Train service, which carries passengers and their cars from Virginia to Central Florida, has strong bookings for the 2020-21 snowbird season, a spokeswoman said. Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel. (Susan Stocker/Sun-Sentinel)

The annual migration of snowbirds to South Florida has begun, but you may not notice. As COVID-19 cases spike across the nation, South Floridians who usually watch beaches and restaurants fill up with out-of-towners are wondering the same thing: How big will this year’s flock be?

Not as big as usual, reports David Lyons at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Each year, thousands of residents from northern U.S. and Canadian cities leave their homes to escape the bone-chilling cold of winter and head south to Florida for extended stays that often last into the early spring. They come by planes, trains, cars, luxury motor coaches and RVs with small boats in tow.

County tourism bureaus don’t closely track snowbird traffic. But at the start of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show this week, Mayor Dean Trantalis guessed that the number of seasonal visitors could be off by as much as 20% to 25%.

The mayor said he has a brother in Connecticut, who, along with his wife, elected to stay home this year. Whether fewer snowbirds is good or bad depends on your view of what South Florida living should be.

For some full-time residents, this year will be what they always hope for: Fewer people clogging roads with cars bearing out-of-state plates. Fewer beachgoers angling for space on the shoreline. Fewer diners fighting for restaurant reservations.

But the smaller gaggle of snowbirds is not good news for businesses that will suffer in a year when they’ve already suffered too much. And that old adage that it’s the visitors who foot the bill for the amenities of paradise could boomerang. Sales and bed taxes will decline, and employment could fall further.

Restrictions upon landing

The snowbirds who do come can expect some pandemic-driven changes from last year, particularly at condo complexes and RV parks that are determined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.“My best advice for people coming down is to contact their association and see what the protocols are,” said Donna DiMaggio Berger, a longtime condo and homeowner association lawyer at the Becker firm in Fort Lauderdale.

She said a number of her association clients are informing snowbird residents “that they are not going to be able to use amenities for a certain amount of time.”

“Even the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said the risk for transmission increases when you have people coming from other spots,” she said. “In 55-and-over retirement communities, the stakes are higher. They have a vulnerable resident demographic.”

Many complexes and high-rises have closed their gyms, community rooms, game rooms and libraries since the pandemic struck in March. Nancy Schreiber, property manager at the Paradise Island RV Resort in Oakland Park, said she’s worried about travelers from states that lack safety mandates that are prevalent in South Florida.

“They’re coming from states that don’t know what a mask looks like,” she said. “We tell them what’s going on here in Broward and Miami Dade. Hopefully, they don’t book and feel they’ve got the free run of the place.”

Schreiber said her snowbird contingent is usually composed of 65% French Canadians from Quebec. “They’re the ones that are not coming because they can’t cross the border with their RVs.” The U.S.-Canadian border has been closed for months.

“My friends from the Northeast that typically come are coming,” she said. “But I am filling the void with domestic travelers. I am seeing more from the Midwest.”

She is also hosting people from Nevada and Utah, which is unusual. “The difference there is they are not staying three or four months. The traffic in and out of here is going to be four times what I’m used to.”

But Schreiber predicts the Canadians will tire of the cold and come to sunny Florida. “You can sit at home there in quarantine and have your groceries delivered in the snow. Or you can come here. That point gets them.”

Vacant second homes

Thus far, snowbird traffic also appears to be down from 2019 among second-home visitors in association-controlled communities, said Bruce Masia, a Broward County area regional vice president for KW Property Management,

“You can feel a lightness in the communities,” he said. “You usually see in the beginning of October an influx of people coming down. We’re definitely seeing less of that right now. It might pick up. Maybe people are hanging out to be with their families through Thanksgiving.”

The rise in COVID cases is a factor, he said. “I think people are taking the precautions,” Masia said. “Florida is becoming hot again. We were very calm for the last four to six weeks. Now our numbers are rising again. People are saying to themselves, ‘Where am I better off?’” he said. “’Am I better off staying where I am? Or am I better off coming to Florida?”’

Consumer services that monitor winter travel movements say people are cautiously hitting the road to shake off cabin fever from lockdowns and quarantines.

“The vast majority of people are concerned about the pandemic as we approach the holiday travel season,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for the Auto Club Group of Florida. But he added there is a “growing sense of confidence among some travelers.”

“There are those who are getting that pandemic fatigue. There are others who traveled in the summertime or recent months and feel they can do it safely,” he said.

According to a survey by 55Places, a Chicago-based service that helps people research retirement options, 58% of 1,099 respondents said the virus will play a role in their travel decisions and cause them to change their plans.

Of that group, 70% said they would take extra precautions by monitoring local public health benchmarks and adjust their plans if they felt uncomfortable with how the coronavirus was being dealt with at their destinations.

See the South Florida Sun-Sentinel report here.