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Laurie and Rick Vant Hoff have spent the last six winters in a rented property in Cape San Blas, Fla. This year, the retired couple, who live in Wisconsin, intended to stay until the end of March — their longest stint as so-called snowbirds, Ms. Vant Hoff, 64, said.
At least that was the plan until several weeks ago, when the news of the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in the United States. First, friends who were supposed to join them called to cancel, then restaurants gradually switched to only offering takeout or deliveries, and finally, Cape San Blas closed its beaches.
“That’s when we really started thinking, boy, should we be staying?” said Ms. Vant Hoff, a retired accounting assistant.
[Facing the snowbirds’ dilemma? Here is experts’ advice on whether to return North.]
Millions of Americans — mostly over the age of 60, many of them retired — take part in an annual migration from the cold North to the balmy South each winter. Now, many of them are faced with a travel dilemma amid the outbreak: Should they stay or should they go? Many miss their families and wish they could be closer to home in case of an emergency. Others worry about being far away from their health care providers. Some just had plans, and want to know if they should keep them.
“We don’t know what’s better,” Ms. Vant Hoff said. “Is it better for us to stay here for a whole month or is it better to go home?”
Some people had no choice but to return.
Christine and Paul Lauster, a retired couple from Clyde, a small town in upstate New York, take their camping trailer on an annual winter trip, and were staying in a Florida state park when news of the virus began spreading. In late March, Florida announced it was closing its state parks to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
With their reservations canceled, the trip had come to an end, said Ms. Lauster, 68, a retired school librarian. They watched as friends packed their belongings within hours and hit the road the following day. Then they started planning their own drive home.
It took them about three days to get to upstate New York. Hours into their drive, one of the camper’s wheels came off, which forced them to stop in Virginia for a “Band-Aid fix,” Ms. Lauster said. The following day, after driving for about 11 hours, they made it to Clyde a little after midnight. They plan to remain under self-quarantine for two weeks.
“It was a relief to be home,” Ms. Lauster said. “There’s no longer the pressure of what happens if they close roads, if they close gas stations?”
In Texas, another popular state for snowbirds (though they are called winter Texans there), private campgrounds remain open and largely full, said Brian Schaeffer, the executive director and chief executive of the Texas Association of Campground Owners. His 400 members, made up of private campgrounds and R.V. parks, have only seen about a five percent decline in reservations and will continue to operate as essential businesses. The majority of the parks’ visitors usually stay for an entire season.
Mr. Schaeffer said he thought it was better for visitors to shelter in place in South Texas. “Better to do that than risk traveling through multiple states to get back home. Once things settle down, then you can go back.”
As precautions, he said, many of the parks have closed common areas like recreation halls and pools to prevent guests from gathering.
Luanne Thielke, 77, a retired business owner, spends the winters in Palm Desert, Calif., with her husband and has an early April flight scheduled back to Oregon.
Her husband, 78, has a follow-up doctor’s appointment he cannot miss, Ms. Thielke said, and both of them have underlying health conditions.
So far, they are sticking with their plan to ship their car and board the plane, she said.
“We think it’s better to fly,” Ms. Thielke said. “We made the plans and it’s just in God’s hands.”
Adina Schorr, a retired interior designer who spends her winters in a gated community in Boca Raton, Fla., initially wanted to fly back to her apartment in New York City.
“I wanted to be much closer to my children, even if I would be locked up in my apartment,” said Ms. Schorr, 81, whose husband died last year.
But her three children convinced her that staying where she was, even by herself, was the safest option for her, Ms. Schorr said.
To make her feel less alone, one of her three children, his wife and her grandchild temporarily moved to the same gated community where they are living with their in-laws. They still practice social distancing, Ms. Schorr said, but at least they can go out for a walk together or spend some time outside as a family.
“I’ll wait because there is no reason for me to rush back,” Ms. Schorr said. “It really doesn’t matter where you are because you cannot come close to each other.”
Part of the debate about whether to stay or go involves the trip home, often a long drive, usually made over several days. Will hotels be open — and safe — or will domestic travel be restricted?
The Abingdon Manor, a 10,000-square-foot boutique hotel in the town of Latta, S.C., regularly hosts snowbirds because of its convenient location — halfway between New York and Palm Beach, Fla., and just off Interstate 95. It has seen about an 85 percent decline in bookings in the past two weeks, said the hotel’s owner, Michael Griffey.
As of Wednesday evening, the manor had none of its seven bedrooms booked, Mr. Griffey, 72, said.
“We had lots of cancellations,” Mr. Griffey said. “What we’re seeing now is people who are trying to get home. A lot of our regular guests are staying put in Florida.”
Mr. Griffey added: “We are just sort of an emergency stop.”
In the end, the Vant Hoffs decided they would go home and are going to start their 18-hour drive home on Sunday, their regularly scheduled departure date. They chose to stay until the end of their booking to enjoy the pool, walks in the woods, birding and puzzles.
“We just absolutely fell in love with the area, Mr. Vant Hoff said. “Very quiet and very laid back. There’s no better place I’d rather get stuck. ”
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