WASHINGTON, DC – Every spring near a South Florida coastal strip known as the Broadwalk, grateful Hollywood Beach retailers and restaurateurs come together for a two-day celebration of all things Canada. .

“Canadafest” has been taking place for nearly 40 years in the heart of a quintessentially Canadian diaspora south of Fort Lauderdale, a way of thanking the approximately 1.2 million people north of the border who visit the state each year.

Canadafest 2021 was set to be the biggest ever, said Denise Dumont, editor-in-chief of The Florida Sun, the French-language community newspaper that helps organize the event.

COVID-19, of course, had other plans.

“The 2021 edition has been canceled, for obvious reasons,” said Dumont. “We hope that later we can continue the tradition. “

This is just one illustration of the impending “dark winter” the pandemic has brought to the United States, where the number of single-day deaths and new infections has surpassed earlier peaks set in the spring.

And in a part of the country that has come to welcome seasonal visitors to Canada as family, the health risks and restrictions on cross-border travel 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 an integral part of the area since moving from Sudbury, Ont., With his wife Lise-Anne in 1984.

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

Revenue for November is already about 30% lower than in previous years, Serafini said – a figure that reflects both a drop in Canadian traffic and a modest increase in US visitors.

In a typical year, about 500,000 Canadians, many from Quebec, spend the winter in Florida, said Evan Rachkovsky, spokesperson for the Canadian Snowbird Association. Many revolve around Hollywood since the 1920s, when Canadian workers helped founder Joseph Young build the city from the ground up.

Their ranks are expected to dip 70% this season, Rachkovsky said, not to mention the likely impact on visits in the short term. Together, snowbirds and short-term travelers typically spend over US $ 6 billion in the state each year.

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

“When they come, they spend and they really help the local economy here. And they’re rooted in this community – they’ve been here for years and years, settled here to some extent, and it’s their home away from home.

Not this year.

Debra Case, who owns and operates Ocean Alley Restaurant and Beach Bar with her husband Terry for the past 20 years, said her business has halved from 2019 despite a very good first quarter of the year .

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

“Even though we are entitled to 50 percent of the seats in our companies, even today we have almost no Canadian traffic. So you can imagine how much it affected us.

Florida has the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases among the 50 U.S. states – over one million as of Friday morning – and added nearly 11,000 new cases on Thursday.

Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, said preliminary figures show a 98.8% drop in visits to Canada in July, August and September compared to the same period a year ago .

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

“You can certainly tell that Canadians are not here as they normally would be – and travelers in general, for that matter,” said Joseph Guggino, a lawyer and real estate investor whose latest company, Forbici Modern Italian, opened its doors. doors there in 2019.

“Imagine opening a restaurant and then, less than a year later, being affected by COVID,” Guggino said. “It was an incredible experience, but a learning experience and a valuable experience too.”

With Canada’s absence, some Americans are filling the gap, said Michael Falsetto, an Ottawa real estate and hotel entrepreneur who moved to the Miami area in 2003.

“I see a big change this year in the international and Canadian visitors arriving this winter, and the slack seems to be taken care of by all the northeastern people trying to come here,” said Falsetto.

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

“They say, ‘Look, I can work from anywhere. Why the hell do I have to work from New York in the winter when everything’s 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: The locals stayed put.

“People who live here usually leave all summer,” he said. “August and September are among the worst months ever because no one is in town. But this year, no one left.

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

Falsetto said his friends in Toronto are already planning cruises and other trips in the spring, while Serafini looks forward to preparing his restaurants with Canadians next fall.

“I think the walls are going to explode,” Serafini said. “I think it’ll explode though if this thing ends up being under control.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 6, 2020.


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