Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plea to Canadians to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Giles Slade is continuing his vacation in Havana.
The 66-year-old from Brockville, Ont., has even extended his stay by a month, until May 5, hoping to ride out the worst of the outbreak in a country where the weather is warm and there are currently only 10 confirmed cases.
“I feel like I drew a lucky straw, or something like that, when I decided to come to Cuba this year,” said Slade, who spends his days scuba diving, learning Spanish and writing.
“It’s a bit too hard to sort of fit it in between scuba and Spanish classes, but it’s coming along very nicely,” he said of his latest book.
Slade is one of several Canadians who told CBC News they’ve chosen not to rush home during the pandemic, convinced they’re safer where they are.
However, the federal government suggests otherwise. That’s because border restrictions are tightening in many countries and Canadians abroad could face problems accessing affordable health care.
“If people do become ill, it is much better to become ill in your own home country, where you know that you have appropriate health coverage,” said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
Some travellers have protected themselves with medical insurance, but there’s a risk it will run out if they extend their stay.
Since Canada has advised against non-essential international travel due to the coronavirus, many insurance companies are refusing to extend medical coverage beyond a traveller’s original return date, said insurance broker Martin Firestone.
Firestone said he’s had to break that news to many of his snowbird clients who want to remain in a warmer climate during the pandemic.
“I’m dealing with people who want to stay, believing the germs are going to die in the heat, and they need [medical insurance] extensions. And that’s now become very difficult for me to accommodate,” said Firestone, who works for Travel Secure in Toronto.
Slade doesn’t have medical insurance, but said he’s not worried because he believes any hospital costs in Cuba would be minimal and he trusts the country’s national health care.
“The excellent health-care system is prepped and ready for the inevitable expansion of this nasty disease,” he said.
Riskier to stay or leave?
Firestone said Canadians shouldn’t risk travelling without medical insurance — even when there is no pandemic.
Lili Hrabchak of Toronto agrees, which is why the snowbird purchased insurance before travelling with her husband to their winter home in Rotonda West, Fla., back in November.
But she recently learned that coverage is set to run out — before Hrabchak’s planned departure date of April 7. In response to the government’s travel advisory, her insurance provider, Johnson, announced that its clients’ medical coverage will last until March 23, or however long it takes them to immediately return home.
This upset Hrabchak, who isn’t ready to return to Canada.
Her husband, Todd, is 85 years old and suffers from health complications due to a recent stroke. She worries if they fly back by March 23, he risks picking up the virus at a crowded airport or on a crowded flight, as many other travellers rush home, too.
“I feel like there’s a gun to my head, telling me you have to leave, no matter how foolish it is,” Hrabchak, 71, said Tuesday.
She said she was trying to decide which move was riskier: staying in Florida without medical insurance or heading home.
“It is like playing Russian roulette.”
It turns out, she won’t have to make that difficult decision.
Shortly after Hrabchak made her case to her provider Wednesday morning, she was informed that her medical insurance will last until April 7, and can be extended further if necessary.
“I am over the moon happy,” said Hrabchak, who encourages any snowbird in a similar situation to contact their insurance provider.
Pressure from the kids
Sandy Munro and his wife, Lynn, are also defying the government’s recommendation to return home immediately.
The snowbirds are spending the winter in Venice, Fla., and plan to drive back to Canada when their medical insurance expires on April 6 — but not a day sooner. That’s because they feel they’re better off right now in Florida than at their home in Aurora, Ont., north of Toronto.
Currently, Florida has about 100 more COVID-19 cases than Ontario. Munro said people in his gated community are practising proper protocols by social distancing, while still enjoying the outdoors.
“We play golf, pickleball, tennis, ride bikes, all healthy things,” said Munro, who is 69 years old and suffers from a lung disorder.
“The warmer climate here in Florida is much better for my particular state of health.”
If Munro were able to extend his medical insurance, he said he’d consider staying longer — if it weren’t for constant pressure from his four children.
“Our kids are pushing us hard to come back.”