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From insurance to hotel quarantine, new travel rules leave snowbirds in a conundrum

Click to play video 'COVID-19: Calgary snowbird questions imminent hotel quarantine of international travellers' COVID-19: Calgary snowbird questions imminent hotel quarantine of international travellers
WATCH: Calgary snowbird questions imminent hotel quarantine of international travellers – Feb 4, 2021

Canadian seniors hunkered down in sunny U.S. destinations find themselves in a bit of quandary this winter.

Following the announcement last week of a string of new measures to crack down on non-essential travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, many are now delaying their return to the country.

Read more: Like a ‘rock concert’: Coronavirus vaccines a hot ticket for Canadian snowbirds

“I am seeing interest through either calls or actual sales of individuals who are asking to extend their current travel insurance because they have no intention of coming back,” Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto who caters to snowbird clients, told Global News.

Their main concern? A mandatory three-day quarantine at a government-designated hotel that could cost upwards of $2,000, while they wait for the result of their polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) upon landing.

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This is in addition to showing a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours prior to boarding a plane and the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entry.

The added layers, which are yet to take effect with no date set, are not going down well with the snowbirds.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus vaccine lures Canadians snowbirds to the U.S.' Coronavirus vaccine lures Canadians snowbirds to the U.S.
Coronavirus vaccine lures Canadians snowbirds to the U.S – Jan 5, 2021

Marti Young, a Calgary senior riding out the winter at her condo in Mesa, Ariz., called the mandatory hotel quarantine “ludicrous.”

“If the government wants you to do that, they can pick up the tab,” said Young, who goes south for the winter every year, and did so again in October 2020 despite a travel advisory against non-essential travel.

Read more: Canada’s COVID rules on leisure travel straining business: industry experts

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In a letter addressed to the Minister of Transportation, Omar Alghabra, the Canadian Snowbird Association (CSA) pleaded for an exemption to the hotel rule.

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“To force Canadian citizens to pay over $2,000 for three nights of accommodation in a government-approved hotel is unreasonable and will be a financial hardship for many,” wrote Karen Huestis, CSA president, on Feb.1.

Since the new rules were announced last week, there has been an influx of customer queries, Brad Dance, chief customer officer at TuGo, a Canadian travel insurance company, told Global News.

While the new measures do not change how the travel insurance covers Canadian snowbirds, Dance said TuGo’s COVID-19 insurance plan does not offer coverage for mandatory testing or costs incurred when quarantined in Canada.

‘Huge implications’

On Friday, Canadian health officials attempted to allay concerns about the new measures, saying they were being implemented to keep Canadians safe.

Particularly for those Canadians who are currently in their winter residence and have been for some time, I want to assure them that we will provide them with ample notice of all the requirements to ensure that they are able to comply,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said during a news conference.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Canada to introduce new stricter COVID-19 measures at land crossings' Coronavirus: Canada to introduce new stricter COVID-19 measures at land crossings
Coronavirus: Canada to introduce new stricter COVID-19 measures at land crossings – Feb 5, 2021

While many of his clients have been able to extend their stay and insurance, Firestone, of Travel Secure, cautioned this could have implications for U.S. tax returns and their health insurance validity back in Canada.

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“There are huge implications for individuals who think they’re going to avoid this three-day hotel quarantine and continue to stay abroad,” he said.

According to U.S. immigration laws, Canadians who are not U.S. citizens or green card holders can stay in the United States for a maximum of six months or 182 days in a year. They can extend their stay beyond that but may have to file tax forms to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Read more: Coronavirus: 6.3M travellers entered Canada and didn’t have to quarantine

To remain eligible for health insurance back in Canada, there is a limit to how many days you can stay outside of the country, depending on the home province.

Quebec residents are required to not be absent from the province for more than six months to keep their health insurance. In British Columbia, residents who will be absent from the province for six months or more in a calendar year, need to contact Health Insurance BC to confirm continued eligibility.

In Alberta, snowbirds might be eligible for continued AHCIP coverage if they are away from the province for up to 212 days in a 12-month period.

Meanwhile, Ontario residents who remain outside the country more than seven months in a 12-month period can keep their provincial health coverage for up to two years as long as they have a valid health card, make Ontario their primary home and were in the province at least 153 days per year in the two years prior to leaving.

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Click to play video 'Canada’s latest travel restrictions/quarantine rules explained' Canada’s latest travel restrictions/quarantine rules explained
Canada’s latest travel restrictions/quarantine rules explained – Feb 4, 2021

“We understand that the new requirements can create inconveniences and frustration for some travellers, but we are putting in place those requirements to protect the health of all Canadians,” Allison St-Jean, press secretary for the office of the Minister of Transport, told Global News in an emailed statement on Friday.

As part of the new measures, starting on Jan. 31, four of Canada’s major airlines suspended all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean. The restriction will last until April 30.

Read more: ‘Vaccine tourism’: Perks and problems of travelling to get COVID-19 shots

Firestone said a group of his clients who were planning on staying in Barbados and Mexico until March cut their trips short and returned this week. However, he said there was a loophole to the flight suspensions.

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“U.S. carriers are still flying out of Toronto to some destination spots as our planes sit idle. So that’s a bit of the problem.”

The continued pandemic restrictions have taken a heavy toll on the airline industry, with Canadian airlines recently slashing jobs and cutting flights.

Industry executives say the latest move to limit inbound flights to four airports will hamper business trips, which could delay economic recovery.

— With files from Global News’ Tomasia DaSilva