Dan and Lise-Anne Serafini are seen at GG’s Waterfront in Hollywood, Fla., in an undated handout photo. In Florida, a part of the country that has come to embrace Canada’s seasonal visitors as family, the health risks and cross-border travel restrictions are sure to amplify the pain of the coming winter season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-GG’s Waterfront, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Dan and Lise-Anne Serafini are seen at GG’s Waterfront in Hollywood, Fla., in an undated handout photo. In Florida, a part of the country that has come to embrace Canada’s seasonal visitors as family, the health risks and cross-border travel restrictions are sure to amplify the pain of the coming winter season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-GG’s Waterfront, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Canadian entrepreneurs in south Florida lament loss of snowbirds, eye 2021 homecoming

In March, when the pandemic first hit, ‘everybody just left, and they haven’t come back’

Each spring, near a south Florida seaside strip known as the Broadwalk, the grateful retailers and restaurateurs of Hollywood Beach gather for a two-day celebration of all things Canada.

“Canadafest” has played out for nearly 40 years in the heart of a uniquely Canadian diaspora south of Fort Lauderdale, a way of saying thank you to the roughly 1.2 million people from north of the border who visit the state annually.

The 2021 Canadafest was to be the biggest ever, said Denise Dumont, the editor-in-chief of Le Soleil de la Floride, the French-language community newspaper that helps organize the event.

COVID-19, of course, had other plans.

“The 2021 edition has been cancelled, for obvious reasons,” Dumont said. ”We hope that later on, we’re going to be able to continue the tradition.”

It’s just one illustration of the looming “dark winter” the pandemic has wrought in the United States, where the number of single-day deaths and new infections have blown past earlier peaks established in the spring.

And in a part of the country that has come to embrace Canada’s seasonal visitors as family, the health risks and cross-border travel restrictions are sure to amplify the pain.

“It’s going to be a tough, tough season,” said Dan Serafini, a veteran Hollywood restaurateur who has been a fixture in the area since migrating from Sudbury, Ont., with his wife Lise-Anne in 1984.

The Serafinis, whose first restaurant became the original East Side Mario’s, have operated GG’s Waterfront Bar and Grill in Hollywood for a decade. Their latest venture, a casual eatery they’ve rechristened Tiki Tiki, is run by their son, Alex.

Receipts for November are already trending about 30 per cent lower than previous years, Serafini said — a figure that reflects both a decline in Canadian traffic and a modest increase in the number of visiting Americans.

In a typical year, roughly 500,000 Canadians — many of them from Quebec — spend the winter in Florida, said Evan Rachkovsky, a spokesman for the Canadian Snowbird Association. Many gravitate to Hollywood, and have done since the 1920s, when labourers from Canada helped founder Joseph Young build the city from scratch.

Their ranks are expected to plunge 70 per cent this season, Rachkovsky said, to say nothing of the likely impact on short-term visits. Together, snowbirds and short-termers typically spend more than US$6 billion in the state each year.

“I’ll tell you, we love those Canadians,” Serafini said.

“When they come, they spend, and they really help the local economy here. And they’re entrenched in this community — they’ve been here for years and years, have settled here to some degree, and this is their home away from home.”

Not this year.

Debra Case, who has owned and operated the Ocean Alley Restaurant and Beach Bar with husband Terry for the last 20 years, said business is down by half compared with 2019, despite a very strong first three months of the year.

In March, when the pandemic first hit, “everybody just left, and they haven’t come back,” Case said.

“Even though we are allowed 50 per cent seating in our businesses, still today, we have nearly zero Canadian traffic. So you can imagine how that has impacted us.”

Florida has the third-highest total COVID-19 caseload of all 50 U.S. states — more than a million as of Friday morning — and added nearly 11,000 new cases Thursday.

Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, said preliminary figures show a 98.8 per cent decline in Canadian visits during July, August and September compared with the same period a year ago.

And it’s not just Hollywood: Florida-bound snowbirds and tourists also tend to flock to the Gulf Coast beaches in the Tampa area.

“You can definitely tell that the Canadians aren’t here like they’d normally be — and travellers in general, for that matter,” said Joseph Guggino, an attorney and real estate investor whose latest venture, Forbici Modern Italian, opened there in 2019.

“Imagine opening a restaurant and then less than a year later getting hit with COVID,” Guggino said. “It’s been an unbelievable experience, but a learning experience and a valuable experience as well.”

In Canada’s absence, some Americans are filling the breach, said Michael Falsetto, a real estate and hospitality entrepreneur from Ottawa who moved to the Miami area in 2003.

“I’m seeing a big change this year in international and Canadian visitors coming this winter, and the slack seems to be picked up by all the northeasterners that are trying to come down here,” Falsetto said.

Canadians have been calling in droves to either sell or rent out their seasonal properties, but there has so far been no shortage of renters and buyers from places like New York, Chicago and Pennsylvania.

“They’re saying, ‘Look, I can work from anywhere. Why the hell do I have to work from New York in the winter, with everything being closed, when I can be in Florida?’”

Falsetto’s cousin Marc, whose Handcrafted Hospitality group includes Fort Lauderdale fixtures like Tacocraft and Henry’s Sandwich Station, cited another silver lining: locals have stayed put.

“The people that live here usually leave all summer long,” he said. “August and September are some of the worst months ever, because nobody’s in town. But this year, nobody left.”

Provided they can survive 2020, businesses are crossing their fingers for a season to remember next year, given the amount of pent-up demand that Canadians and Americans alike will be keen to burn off.

Falsetto said his friends in Toronto are already making plans for cruises and other travel in the spring, while Serafini is looking forward to packing his restaurants with Canadians come next fall.

“I think the walls are gonna blow off,” Serafini said. “I think it’s going to explode if if this thing eventually gets under control.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Marine biologist Rick Harbo pulls a lid from the Ladysmith harbour, which he uses to monitor the presence of native and non-native species in the Ladysmith harbour. (Cole Schisler photo)
Unidentified sponge may be the latest marine species invading Ladysmith Harbour

Marine biologist finding dozens of alien species in warm-water harbour, none of them threatening

More and more graffiti has appeared in Ladysmith’s downtown core during the pandemic. (Cole Schisler photo)
Council creates rebate program to encourage graffiti clean up

Property owners can receive up to $50 to help fund graffiti removal

Rick Ruppenthal of Saltair will host a 12-hour talk-a-thon Friday, June 18 over Facebook live. (Photo submitted)
Talk-a-thon to focus on men’s mental health issues

Saltair man spearheading a campaign to generate more conversation during fundraiser

(File photo)
Poverty reduction survey identifies 10 poverty themes

Poverty reduction plan will be finalized in July 2021

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens between Port Alberni and Tofino

Multi-vehicle accident temporarily closed highway in both directions

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

Most Read