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Coronavirus: Meet the small flock of Canadian snowbirds in Largo, Fla.

Click to play video: 'Some Canadian snowbirds continue to defy travel warnings' Some Canadian snowbirds continue to defy travel warnings
WATCH: Some Canadians are still insisting on going south for the winter, ignoring warnings and restrictions on non-essential travel. Mike Armstrong explains why – Feb 11, 2021

Her sons back in Canada didn’t want her to spend the winter in Florida, but Margaret Johnston went anyway.

The 80-year-old resident of Newcastle, Ont., says being stuck at home in the snow wouldn’t have been good for her legs.

“You can’t give them an oil treatment like a car,” Johnston says. “You have to work them out.”

Johnston is one of the Canadians who has travelled to the southern United States, despite Ottawa’s efforts to ground snowbirds. The federal government advises against all non-essential international travel.

“I thought about it long and hard,” Johnston says.

Instead of being snowbound at home, Johnston has returned to the Midway AM/Can mobile home park in Largo, Florida. She’s been coming down since 1980.

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Read more: Canada to require negative COVID-19 test at land borders next week

This year, the park is almost empty, with most Canadian snowbirds missing. American Richard Decker says the park is usually bustling with activities every day. Instead, everything has been cancelled.

“It’s slow. Quiet,” Decker says.

“That’s the worst thing — it’s quiet.”

Sitting in front of his mobile home, Len Simmons of Toronto says he figures about 90 per cent of Canadians have stayed home due to COVID-19. He says that wasn’t an option for him.

With the border closed, Simmons flew to Tennessee and met his American girlfriend. The two of them drove the rest of the way together in her car.

“I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and I’m not staying up there in the cold,” Simmons says.

Read more: Feds detail criteria for hotels to host travellers for mandatory COVID-19 quarantine

Florida attracts more Canadian tourists than any other U.S. state. In a normal year, about 4.1 million Canadians make the trip south.

While most snowbirds have stayed home, some were travelling to Florida to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The state’s policy was originally to vaccinate anyone over the age of 65.

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Those rules, however, were tightened after a backlash. Florida now requires people to show proof of residency before they can be vaccinated.

But the chance to be vaccinated early wasn’t a consideration for Anne Udell. She’s confident taking the same precautions she’d take at home in Kanata, Ont., are enough to keep her safe.

“When we go shopping, it takes nerve,” Udell says. “But you use your mask, and sanitize, and wash your hands.”

Among the Canadians who made the trip down is one couple that’s lived a nightmare.

Debbie and Wayne Mailman of Aylesford, N.S., have a home in the park next to Midway. They travelled down in early December and both contracted COVID-19.

Wayne had to be flown home by air ambulance. Debbie had to fly to New England and travel across the border by land. After a mixup with their insurance company, the couple faces a $300,000 medical bill in the United States.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, Florida has seen more than 1.8 million cases of COVID-19. That’s more double the number of cases in all of Canada — 816,000.

Over the last week, Florida has averaged 7,666 new cases a day, compared with just 3,453 in Canada.

Read more: Canada’s travel restrictions: How hotels, isolations sites help stop COVID-19

Udell and Johnston admit there is a danger in travelling south, but point out there is COVID-19 back home in Ontario, and say they wouldn’t be getting as much exercise if they were stuck inside. The two women walk together three times a day.

“We do our 10,000 steps,” Johnston says. “And then we both go our own ways, to our own homes, and we cook our own meals.”

The closure of the U.S.-Canada border is having an impact on snowbirds. Most drive down so they have a vehicle for the winter. But with the border locked tightly, this year, they’re forced to fly.

“That’s what’s keeping some friends at home,” Udell says.

Whatever it is keeping snowbirds away, Decker says he’s looking forward to their return, and life coming back to the mobile home park.

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“I’m hoping this has all blown over,” Decker says. “But we don’t know yet.”

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