Snowbird finds a way to head south

Many retired Canadians are staying at home this year, but some have figured out how to make the trip work for them

CAMROSE, Alta. — Despite COVID-19 and a closed border, Gord Johnsen still flew to Arizona for the winter without the rest of the Canadian snowbirds.

The warm weather was a draw, but close friends in the community of Gilbert, Arizona, is the real draw.

“I have great friends,” said Johnsen, who has travelled to the Phoenix area for 13 years after selling his Oyen, Alta., pharmacy in 2007.

“And, I am not so keen on winter weather. It will be a modified snowbird winter, totally.”

Johnsen flew to Arizona Oct. 30 and plans to stay until the end of April.

What makes it easier for Johnsen to spend the winter in Arizona is owning his home in the gated community of Trilogy at Power Ranch, a development with 2,035 homes and about 3,000 people. He also has a car at his Arizona home.

“If you have an American car down there it is much easier.”

The Canadian government has extended the border closure between Canada and the United States to slow the spread of COVID-19. It has been closed to all but essential travel since March 21. While the border between the two countries is closed, flights have continued and has allowed snowbirds like Johnsen to fly to their destinations.

In a normal winter, Johnsen would play tennis and pickleball several times a week, go for weekly hikes, join in the social activities that come with each sport and volunteer twice a week as a museum tour guide at the Airbase Arizona Museum in Mesa.

He will likely continue to play tennis and pickleball, both sports that have limited close contact with other players.

The hiking group activities have been modified to ensure fewer people are on each hike.

With 100 to 200 visitors each day at the airbase museum, Johnsen will not volunteer as a tour guide to help reduce the chances of contracting COVID-19.

What will be different is the active socializing between friends in his community who often invite him to join their family for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions. Instead, he plans to stay in small cohort groups, just as he does in Canada, to limit the likelihood of contracting the virus.

“I think you still have to keep on living without total fear. You don’t need to be reckless, but you can’t live your life in fear.”

Johnsen said there have only been a handful of positive cases in the Trilogy at Power Ranch community, which offered him peace of mind.

Johnsen has bought health insurance in case he breaks his ankle on the tennis court. His insurance company also offered him a COVID rider of up to $50,000. Mostly, he plans to practise social distancing to keep the virus away.

“It means more to me to go even if I have to sit in the backyard. This winter will be different.”

Joanne Osatiuk and her husband, Michael of Madge Lake, Sask., have travelled to Chandler, Arizona, for 10 years, but have pushed the pause button until at least January when the border restrictions may be loosened.

“We’re not going until January, if we can still go,” she said.

Gord Johnsen said the draw of warm weather and friends in Arizona was stronger than the fear of COVID-19. | Mary MacArthur photo

Without a car, it is almost impossible to get around the communities in the Phoenix area. Their travel plans depend on the border reopening.

“I sure will miss it.”

Contracting COVID-19 is not a concern for Osatiuk, who said they normally spend their time golfing and not hanging out in bars and restaurants.

“Maybe I should be concerned about getting COVID because I’m 62, but I feel 25.”

Until the border opens, Osatiuk will spend time with her children and grandchildren, play mahjong with her neighbours and brush the dust off her cross country skis and enjoy the Saskatchewan winter.

“I’m retired, my hobbies are golfing. It is going to be the boredom of being indoors all winter and the cold. It’s going to be hard, but if you have to stay home you have to stay home.”

Ken and Darcy Davies of Irvine, Alta., normally spend November to February in Maricopa, Arizona, team roping.

They could hire a commercial truck to haul their horses across the border, but they wouldn’t have their truck and horse trailer, with living quarters, in Arizona.

“It’s really put a kibosh on things,” said Darcy.

The southern Alberta couple will stay in Canada.

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