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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lymphedema is often treated with medical devices such as compression garments, pneumatic compression pumps, or specialized custom wraps and bandages. (Submitted photo)
March 6 marks World Lymphedema Day

Lymphedema is caused by damage to the lymphatic system, and afflictings millions worldwide

Work has begun on the Downtown Public Washroom on 1st Avenue. (Submitted photo)
Work has begun on the Ladysmith Downtown Public Washroom

The project is expected to be finished in the spring

An architectural rendering of the five storey condo building at 201/203 Dogwood Drive. (BJK Architecture photo)
Five storey condo building proposal at Dalby’s proceeds to public hearing stage

Frank and Mike Crucil of FMC Holdings are hoping to turn Dalby’s Automotive into a five storey condo

Jimmy Seymour was recognized for his outstanding work as the solid waste operator for Stz’uminus First Nation. (Submitted photo)
‘He has a way with the community’, Jimmy Seymour recognized for his dedication to Stz’uminus First Nation

Jimmy Seymour uses his job as solid waste operator to spread kindness through Stz’uminus

LSS’s Parallel Players are hosting an online improv show. (Parallel Players photo)
Ladysmith Secondary School improv team hosts livestream performance

Perfomances will be held Thursday, March 4 and Friday March 5 at 7 p.m.

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Retired B.C. teacher and star CFL kicker charged for assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

(Black Press Media files)
Medicine gardens help Victoria’s Indigenous kids in care stay culturally connected

Traditional plants brought to the homes of Indigenous kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
One man shot dead in ‘targeted incident’ in Metchosin

Highway 14 remains closed at incident scene, detour made available early Saturday

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

More than ever before, as pandemic conditions persist, the threat of data breaches and cyberattacks continues to grow, according to SFU professor Michael Parent. (Pixabay photo)
SFU expert unveils 5 ways the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed cybersecurity

Recognizing these changes is the first in a series of steps to mitigate them once the pandemic ends, and before the next: Michael Parent

Kevin Haughton is the founder/technologist of Courtenay-based Clearflo Solutions. Scott Stanfield photo
Islander aims Clearflo clean drinking water system at Canada’s remote communities

Entrepreneur $300,000 mobile system can produce 50,000 litres of water in a day, via solar energy

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

Most Read