Being north of the border this winter was a new one for Bob Slack.
It’d been 22 years since the retired school principal had spent a winter in Canada. Every November since 1998, he and his wife have packed up their belongings and made the drive to Winter Haven, Fla., just southwest of Orlando, from Athens, Ont., near Brockville, to stay until late April when the Great White North completes its thaw.
Last year, COVID-19 put a crimp in those plans, but only temporarily, Slack says. When this November rolls around, he and his wife will be once again packing up the car and heading south, joining the migration of Canadians shunning the cold for warmer climes.
Those Canadians — an estimated one million — spend between three and six months of each year south of the border, primarily in Florida, Arizona and California, and inject billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.
When they arrive next winter, though, those snowbirds may find a reason to tarry.
Last week, Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott reintroduced federal legislation that would allow them to stay in the U.S. an extra two months, up to eight from the six months currently allowed by U.S. immigration policy.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has severely hurt Florida’s travel and tourism industries,” said Scott at the time. “Now as we continue to recover, we should do everything we can to welcome visitors to our state, like our neighbours to the north.
“I’m proud to join Sen. Rubio in sponsoring this bill to allow Canadian snowbirds to enjoy two more months of Florida’s incredible weather and continue to support our tourism industry.”
If passed, the bill would allow Canadian citizens over the age of 50 who own or rent a residence in the U.S. to remain in the country for up to 240 days each year, without being subject to U.S. taxation.
But while the bill could help snowbirds overcome obstacles from the U.S. government they are still somewhat restricted by domestic policies.
If the bill were to pass, Slack says, a new round of negotiations would be needed between the Canadian Snowbirds Association and the provincial governments on health-care coverage.
And there’s no guarantee that would go smoothly. Last September, a court ruled in favour of snowbirds when it ordered Ontario to restore health insurance coverage for residents who face medical emergencies while travelling outside of the country.
The Doug Ford government had cancelled that coverage at the beginning of the year.
Also, most provinces restrict out-of-province health-care coverage to seven months. Currently, Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province that extends health-care coverage to eight out-of-province months.
The new bill could mean a windfall for those Sun Belt states that are popular winter destinations and that have lost billions of dollars due to pandemic travel restrictions.
In Arizona, snowbirds inject an estimated $ 1.4 billion annually into that state’s economy. In Florida, where Canadians spend $ 6.6 billion in a non-pandemic year, that could mean an extra $ 1.3 billion into the coffers from the 350,000 Canadians who overwinter there.
For the snowbirds themselves, the bill could mean more choices, not only in terms of how long they might stay in the U.S., but also in terms of their travel plans when they get back home.
“From the standpoint of a snowbird, it’s all pro in terms of allowing snowbirds greater flexibility in their travel to the U.S.,” says Evan Rachkovsky, spokesperson for the Canadian Snowbird Association.
“When I talk to members of our association, it’s not necessarily that they want to spend the full eight months in Florida, but they like the flexibility of being able to go down there for six months during the winter, and then, if there’s an emergency or an issue at their property, they would have additional time to spend there.”
Currently, U.S. immigration laws limit snowbirds to a six month stay and those Canadians can only avoid paying U.S. taxes for that length of time. The new bill would extend those limits to eight months.
It’s a potential boon for northern border states’ economies as well, Rachkovsky says. When snowbirds return to Canada after maxing out their time in the U.S., they don’t have the option of crossing the border on day trips. An extended two months makes those day trips — and even longer ones — plausible.
For Slack, who typically only spends five-and-a-half months in Florida, the legislation — if passed — likely won’t mean he’ll extend his stay there, but it will offer him, and those like him who live near the border, more flexibility to cross when he’s residing in Canada.
“There’s some nice golf courses we used to go to all the time,” says Slack, who crosses to upper New York via Brockville. “And if you wanted to go shopping, or if you want to go to a different restaurant … even a Sunday drive.”
But the snowbirds that would really benefit from the proposed legislation, Slack says, are the permanent RV population — those who live in RVs full time and merely move their homes from north to south.
Typically, in Canada, he says, the RV campgrounds that host those snowbirds begin to close up in mid-October and don’t reopen until mid-May. That means seven months of unavailable sites for RVs, only six of which can be spent in the U.S.
“They’re the ones that would really benefit from a passage of a bill such as that which was introduced last week,” he says.
But there’s no guarantee the Canadian Snowbirds Act, as it is called, will become law.
Rubio and Scott first introduced it in 2019, but it died on the table when elections rolled around. In fact, Slack says, about five different versions of the bill have been introduced and failed to pass since 2011, each bill stalled when it failed to pass before a new set of elections cleared the legislative table.
“We always say this is the time that is going to happen,” says Slack, who, as a former president of the CSA, had been involved with consultations on the previous bills.
“We might be more a little bit more optimistic this time than we have been previously. This president seems to be more friendly to immigration policies.”