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

The volume of visitors to White Rock’s Marine Drive over the weekend has led council to consider special measures this week. (Aaron Hinks photo)
White Rock council rejects resident-only parking for waterfront

Other health and safety measures to be considered in a special meeting Wednesday

South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell, who works with the DFO, tows a grey whale out of Semiahmoo Bay Sunday. (Contributed photo)
Dead whale floating near White Rock towed to shore for necropsy

Animal has been dead since at least April 15

Vehicles line up for the Greater Vancouver Drive-Thru Food Truck Festival at the Chilliwack Coliseum parking lot on March 27. The touring event comes to Cloverdale this weekend, April 24-25 (Photo: Jenna Hauck/Chilliwack Progress)
Here are the food trucks coming to Cloverdale for a drive-thru festival this weekend

Nine trucks will be parked Saturday, nine Sunday during event at fairgrounds

South Surrey senior Marnie Allard is this year’s honoree in the IG Wealth Management Walk for Alzheimer’s. (Contributed photo)
South Surrey senior honoured in 2021 Alzheimer’s walk

Marnie Allard is living with posterior cortical atrophy

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges all the empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist which is a independent pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, on Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Parts of Surrey, North Delta to get AstraZeneca vaccines for people ages 40+

A total of seven communities in Surrey and Delta will be targeted

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

A man has died after being shot at Coquitlam’s Town Centre Park the evening of Monday, April 19. (Twitter/IHIT)
1 man dead after shooting at Coquitlam park: IHIT

The gunman is still at large, according to the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team

Paramedic Matthew Schlatter of Victoria is living a fuller life today due to the double lung transplant he received in 2019. He encourages B.C. residents to register as an organ donor and let their families know their wishes. (Instagram/Matthew Schlatter)
B.C. man living a full, active life after double-lung transplant

Matt Schlatter encourages people to register as an organ donor to help others live

(Photo by Mojpe/Pixabay)
Canadian kids extracting record amounts from Tooth Fairy

Our neighbours in the U.S. receive slightly less from Tooth Fairy visits

Most Read