The snowbirds are revolting. On the one wing, the migrating seniors are challenging Ottawa’s mandatory hotel quarantine in the courts, balking at paying thousands for a few days in “hotel hell.” On the other, they have become targets of popular disgust. Who do they think they are, the righteous want to know, basking in the sun while the rest of us have been told to stay put? Such reactions are fuelled by legitimate concerns about contagion and a reflexive scorn against perceived rule breakers. Having spent a recent week reading Le Soleil de la Floride, I must admit there’s also a less noble emotion in the mix: jealousy.
The very existence of Le Soleil de la Floride is a testament to the francophone settlement of the Sunshine State. Owned by Louis S. St‑Laurent II, a retired attorney and absolutely the grandson of a former prime minister, the newspaper was founded in 1983 and has thirty-two print issues a year — weekly or monthly, depending on the season. Its readership draws mostly from Québécois retirees, who cluster along the southeast coast, near Fort Lauderdale (an estimated 150,000 Canadian francophones live in the area year-round, with over a million visiting each winter). Soon there may also be an online TV channel, Télé Floride.
These days, the paper’s website, with its shining palm-tree logo, functions as a gateway to a parallel reality. It leads with links to the most important information: gas prices, currency conversion rates, and weather. Beyond that, one finds cost-conscious wine recommendations from a former MuchMusic host, which remind me how much cheaper alcohol is in the States. Then comes a long profile of Réjean Tremblay, a retired journalist who is making a documentary on the ’90s-era rivalry between the Canadiens and the Nordiques. The seventy-six-year-old insists that he feels safer near the beach than in Quebec these days —“above all because of the weather.” That and his thinly veiled bragging about his art collection and motorcycling through the Keys make me want to grab some spray paint and stir up a bit of class conflict. Too bad I have to be home for Montreal’s 8 p.m. curfew.
The blows keep on coming. There are advertisements for $22 hockey tickets, because apparently they’re letting 5,000 people at a time gather to watch the Panthers at BB&T Center. After a game, sports fans can even enjoy their own Schwartz’s, which serves poutine and smoked meat alongside such culinary heresies as fajitas. It is currently open for indoor dining! There are also notices for boat shows, festivals, and tribute concerts to Michael Bublé and the Eagles.
Of course, the most striking difference between the francophone north and the francophone south — and a major reason why so many decided to head down this winter — is the state of vaccination. Anyone over sixty-five who owns or rents property in Florida can receive the shot for free. And, according to the paper, our fellow Canucks have been busy rolling up their sleeves in pharmacies, parks, and Walmarts. Meanwhile, back in Quebec, vaccination of most seniors still feels a long way off. (The per capita death toll here remains by far the worst in Canada, and only slightly lower than Florida’s.)
The coverage of the pandemic in Le Soleil de la Floride contains hints of defensiveness and plenty of contradictions. Condemnations of medical tourism from Argentina and Brazil are printed alongside detailed instructions on getting inoculated. An online video on medical insurance reminds viewers of Canada’s advisory against international travel but encourages them not to judge themselves. An article on New Year’s Eve celebrations insists that Quebecers on the beach were easy to spot, because they were the ones practising proper physical distancing. Good to know that we are still better than Americans, even during taboo trips abroad.
Among the snowbound set, the easiest reaction to the snowbirds is blanket condemnation. With flights to the Caribbean and Mexico cancelled until at least April 30, and the border closed to non-essential car travel, those who hightailed it to Miami seem to have violated the spirit of restrictions, if not the letter. Especially with the new variants, are they not placing all of us at risk?
Ultimately, I’m not so sure that they are. Le Soleil de la Floride’s target audience may be tone deaf, but so long as they quarantine upon return, they are not a particular danger to public health — especially if they come back vaccinated. It’s the Floridians who really have a right to complain, but their governor seems all too happy to give seasonal residents a shot in the arm in exchange for their spending power.
So allow me to abstain from the moralizing pile‑on. I won’t condemn transnational lives just because borders have hardened and the state’s power to command has become more obvious. Not everyone has just one home. The demand that we all suffer through this winter of confinement seems less about science and more a form of weaponized FOMO: If I must miss out, so should everyone else. Or, harsher still, may there be nothing left to miss out on.
SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, not a moral agent, and it does not spread only when you are having fun or bending rules. Let the snowbirds enjoy their golf courses, I say. I’ll console myself with the thought that they’ll be stuck in an overpriced hotel room for a few days on their return, and that I’ve never liked Florida anyway.