WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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.”
‘A tough, tough season’
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.”
Americans filling gaps
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?’”
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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.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2020.