Up until a few weeks ago, Canadian snowbird Diane Rood and her husband, Theo, weren’t sure if they were going to be able to make it to their winter getaway in Florida this year, given the COVID-19-related restrictions on crossing the border by car.
“I have arthritis. The thought of staying in Canada with our cold, damp weather just seemed inconceivable,” she said.
The couple from Lambton Shores, Ont., who always drive to Florida, contemplated taking a commercial flight. But that would mean not having a vehicle when they arrived. Plus, they’d have to leave their beloved black Labrador, Abby, behind.
After listening to his mother’s gripes, Jeremy Rood, a helicopter pilot with Great Lakes Helicopter in Cambridge, Ont., got in touch with a friend, Greg McClay, who operates a commercial trucking business, GRM Transportation, out of Dorchester, Ont. It turned out his grandparents were facing the same dilemma.
After some brainstorming, they came up with a solution.
McClay would take snowbirds’ personal vehicles across the border on his flatbed truck to the Buffalo airport, while Rood would transport the cars’ owners — plus any pets — over the border in his helicopter to the same airport. Once landed, the owners could just get in their vehicles and be on their way, making the roughly 2,000-kilometre drive to Florida.
“This solved all of our problems,” Rood’s mother said Monday.
“It went as smooth as silk. … Within minutes, we were out of the helicopter and at our car.”
Since advertising their solution on the Canadian Snowbirds in Florida Facebook group recently, Rood and McClay say they’ve received hundreds of inquiries. They’ve already done a handful of trips and, as of Monday afternoon, had an additional 35 to 40 trips booked.
“It’s been an exceptional year. We have a roadblock that’s been put in place. But there’s a way around it. We’re doing this to get people down there, so they can enjoy and be healthier. That makes me happy,” Rood said.
“It’s not a loophole,” he added. “We’re just operating within the means of the system.”
Rood said he checked with U.S. authorities beforehand to make sure everything was legal.
“It’s completely permissible,” he said. “The Americans welcome us with smiles. … They’re happy to have us.”
Asked for comment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Jason Givens told the Star to review the U.S. travel restrictions.
Those regulations currently restrict entry into the U.S. via the land border to people engaged in “essential travel.” That includes those in need of medical treatment, going to school or work in the U.S., public health workers, truck drivers and military families.
“Essential travel does not include tourism purposes, such as sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events.”
The current restrictions are in place until at least Nov. 21.
After the Star pressed for a more direct answer, a U.S. customs official replied: “If a Canadian’s vehicle is legitimately imported to the U.S. and the Canadian flies in, that is not considered a violation of the travel restrictions.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives of the Canada Border Services Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada referred inquiries to their U.S. counterparts.
Currently, Rood and McClay are charging their clients $ 1,900 — $ 1,200 for the helicopter flight and $ 700 for the ground transport. They currently fly from Hamilton to Buffalo but are looking to add another route from Windsor to Detroit.
“I bet you I got 200 phone calls in the first few days. It was so much to keep up with. I’m on the phone for five minutes and you get three other calls,” McClay said.
McClay said he can transport as many as three vehicles on his trailer at one time. Owners need to provide him with a detailed list of personal belongings they’ve packed in their vehicles to present to customs officers.
McClay said he’s also co-ordinated a few trips with another carrier, BlueStar Air Services, which takes snowbirds from London to Detroit.
Owner Ryan Charlton said he can take as many as six people at a time in his fixed-wing aircraft. He charges a flat rate of $ 2,500 for the flight.
“The (U.S.) customs people are very happy to see us. They say, ‘Enjoy our country and enjoy Florida.’ It’s kind of refreshing for these snowbirds, for sure.”
Because snowbirds tend to be older, they like the safety of travelling in a private plane, perhaps with a few close friends, and avoiding the congested airport terminals, he said.
“We’re just playing by the rules, right?” Charlton said. “Those are the rules. The land border is closed. You’re still allowed to fly. That’s not necessarily a loophole. That’s just what’s legal right now.”
Colleen Bobor of Stratford, Ont., said she doesn’t see any issues either.
She and her father, Grant Brunne of Beaverton, Ont., took one of Rood’s helicopter rides last Friday to Buffalo along with Brunne’s Shih Tzu, Mojo, and her Cockapoo, Buddy. It was their first time on a helicopter.
“My dad, it was a thrill for him. He was so excited,” Bobor said.
She said she was getting worried whether they would be able to make their annual trip this year to their place in Bonita Springs, Fla. There was no way her father would’ve flown without his dog, she said.
“It was wonderful. I can’t say enough good about it.”
Meanwhile, Diane Rood said she and her husband are isolating comfortably in their home in Cape Coral, Fla.
“I’m at my home. I’ve got my groceries. I’ve got my dog. I’m as happy as can be,” she said.
“We’re grateful to be here. It was so easy for us. No stress whatsoever.”