Restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and the airports will probably be seeing fewer Canadians and other snowbirds this season due to fears of COVID-19 and travel concerns.
But early indicators seem to point to a lively season for our area with the arrival of U.S. seasonal residents.
Some residents at Maple Leaf Golf and Country Club on Kings Highway in Port Charlotte have already told management assistant Debi Coates that they won’t be returning this season. Many of the more than 2,000 residents are Canadians.
“They are able to fly out and have their cars shipped, but they can’t drive out,” Coates said.
Normally, the seasonal residents would begin to arrive by the end of October, she said, but some have already informed her that they will be skipping the season. Other developments reporting cancellations by Canadian seasonal residents are Harbor Lakes RV Resort on El Jobean Road in Port Charlotte, where Canadians in the past have comprised some 60% of their residency each season; La Casa Mobile Home Park in North Port, and Lakewood Village in Punta Gorda.
Although some 99% of seasonal residents at Parkhill Estates in Punta Gorda are coming back, said a spokesperson, many seasonal residents are coming back later. The majority typically would return in late October.
An advisory issued by the Canadian government at the end of October urged Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelers to the U.S. might face difficulties re-entering Canada, and Canadians who planned to visit the U.S. were urged by their government to obtain travel insurance.
What does this mean for us?
Sean Doherty, tourism director at the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau, said Canadians represented 7% of visitors in October through December 2019, and 8% in January through March 2020.
“We have some concerns for what the season has in store,” Doherty said, adding that concerns over health insurance coverage for Canadian citizens might be a factor in making our northern visitors hesitate in visiting.
But it’s expected that many U.S. residents might not stay home and will return to our area. So far this year, the VCB has seen an increase in visitors over the previous fiscal year, which ends in September, Doherty said.
“We were up 2%,” he said.
Visitors have been avoiding Florida’s larger cities and theme parks, and instead have been coming to our area, which promotes outdoor activities such as the beach and golf, Doherty explained. He is hopeful that tourism will continue to increase, but he admitted that it all depends on whether there is another shutdown or if tourists become reticent to travel. However, a harsh winter in the North would be a major factor in drawing visitors here, he added.
‘The season is everything to us’
Doug Amaral, owner of the River City Grill and Italia restaurants in downtown Punta Gorda, said he has “dramatically” felt the effects of the pandemic and fewer visitors. He said by now he would be ordering more food and adding more staff members to gear up for snowbird season, but that’s meaningless, because he can’t anticipate how many diners will be coming.
“The season is everything to us,” he said. “March is our biggest month.”
March was when the shutdown began, causing many people to stay away.
“Although the decline in patrons was gradual, once people became afraid they stopped dining out,” Amaral said.
As Florida reopened to 100% capacity, Amaral had a different plan: “My business is geared toward the elderly and older people who frequent my restaurants,” he explained. “People are fearful, and rightfully so, and so we remained at 50% occupancy.” Amaral said “older people would be more apt to come to our businesses if they were not (seated) elbow to elbow.”
Amaral also “defogs” the entire restaurants with disinfectant each night after closing. Before his employees report to work, Amaral takes their temperature. Currently he is “working with a skeleton crew,” awaiting the next phase in the ongoing pandemic.
Anyone visiting downtown Punta Gorda on Friday night would think that the pandemic had ended. The city was bustling with activity, and diners were streaming into Amaral’s River City Grill and other restaurants along Marion Avenue. Two couples who frequent the restaurant — Tom and Anita Nordberg and John and Linda Schulties from Michigan and Minneapolis, respectively — said they felt very safe in Florida and much more so than at their summer residences in the north.
At the bar, Drew Owens and Amanda Dalton were mixing drinks, and the chefs were busy preparing food. The only noticeable difference was that no one was seated close together, and that’s a problem for restaurant owners who choose to limit capacity.
Penny and Gordon Rowe, owners of Penny’s Restaurant in Punta Gorda, were sitting at the bar Friday evening, visiting with Amaral. They admitted that their closure of one and a half months was a burden. Penny said, however, that since they’ve reopened, business has been brisk. Gordon said they see a lot of patrons from New York and other northern states.
Thanksgiving might be a challenge for those restaurants that continue to operate at under 100% of their occupancy. Amaral said he’s found the solution: He will open Italia next door, which he also owns, and therefore be able to accommodate more people. He expects his business to be half of what it was last Thanksgiving, as a result of his social distancing and perhaps fewer people who would be here for the season.
Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda has been busy, said marketing director Kathy Burnham. The indoor/outdoor waterfront mall was crowded Thursday with locals and visitors alike. Burnham, who is a tourism accommodation member of the Tourist Development Council, said her only concern was whether Canadian residents and visitors would be returning this year.
Making the trip
The Talbert family, who are from Ohio, braved the elements to drive through Tropical Storm Eta on Wednesday. Stephanie Talbert said that the usual 18-hour trip took the family 23 hours. She was traveling with her husband Art Talbert, Sr., daughter Amanda, son Andy, grandson Jensen and his father, Art Talbert, Jr. Stephanie said that the family was prepared: “We had Lysol, masks and sanitizers.”
Some couples preferred traveling by RV, like Debi and Bob Brkal, who are from Manasquan, New Jersey, and Dan and Helen, who have been living in their RV for the past two and a half years. Both couples said that RV travel made them feel safe, but Dan admitted that at many places, they “hunkered down” rather than socializing.
Janice and Larry Toole, who are from New Jersey, have been coming to the area for a two-month stay for the past four years, said Janice. “We delayed our May visit until September,” she said, adding that they would be going back to New Jersey next week. Janice said it was concern over the pandemic that caused them to delay coming to Florida this year.
New Yorkers Bob and Barbara Young and their friend Alicia and her husband said they were visiting Punta Gorda from Long Island to possibly buy a home.
Sheryl Bennett flew in from Rosemount, Minnesota, with her son Jack Folm to visit her parents who live in Venice. They were staying for only three days; Bennett said that she felt safe: “We stayed masked, and before the trip stay isolated for several days.”
Two couples, Justin Haines and B.J. Davis and Christina and John Anderson, decided to take a five-day trip to our area, flying in from Missouri. They, like others, had no qualms about traveling.