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I-Team Investigation: Snowbird wings clipped this upcoming desert season

Some Snowbirds will stay home this winter and skip their annual winter migration south to the Coachella Valley for our sunshine and warm temperatures.

How many won't come? Nobody knows quite yet, but fewer travelers from the north will cost local businesses money. And pandemic concerns and uncertainty can be blamed for the decisions to stay home.

Canadian Resident Doug Wylie isn't alone in his uncertainty about whether to travel south this winter. He says he wants to come to California, but only once he knows he won't have to quarantine when he returns home to Canada.

"They have your number when you cross the border," Wylie said, "and they make a series of phone calls over those two weeks. If you don't answer questions properly or you don't answer the phone at all, that's what cues them to contact the police so the police physically come to your home."

The prospects of a strict at-home Canadian quarantine with daily phone calls and the threat of fines up to $750,000 dollars, plus six months jail time, are just too much for many would-be Snowbirds to risk.

Wylie said, "I have family members that are not coming down. They're giving up on this year altogether." He also says they're worried about obtaining Canadian government-approved health insurance to travel, which could become unavailable if infection rates rise in the US.

Dale Onrait is another Canadian citizen who owns a Coachella Valley home. Onrait said, "If we come, the earliest would be mid-November. Realistically, it might be January. We've been in contact with many many people all across Canada who are friends, who are snowbirds. And we haven't seen any who's made definite plans to go into the US this winter."

If Onrait comes south this winter, he'll stay put and won't go home for the holidays like normal, but it all depends on the U.S. Canadian land border reopening. "My gut feeling is we're not going to be able to make a decision until late October or November," Onrait said.

Canadians can fly into the United States right now, and there are no commercial flights into Palm Springs from Canada as of this week. The US Canadian land border is also closed to all discretionary travel. The Canadian government is set to revisit that decision on Monday, Sept 21, but a reopening of the border right now is uncertain.

"We can't drive across the border into the US," said Onrait, "so that pretty much eliminates people with motor homes or people that can't fly."

A Palm Springs Chamber economic impact report shows 14.9 million visitors to greater palm springs spent $5.9 billion dollars last year supporting more than 53,500 jobs representing 22% of our area's total employment.

They also generated $687 million dollars in state and local taxes, which is equivalent to $4,031 in tax savings for every household in Greater Palm Springs.

Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO Nona Watson said, "When they come into our city and they spend money, they eat in our restaurants."

Watson says she's hearing from a lot of people who want to come, but also want to know what's open and what's not. She says her office is fielding a lot of calls from people making plans to visit now.

"I feel really good," Watson said adding, "If you just measure it by the amount of phone calls and tourism I get in Palm Springs. I think we're going to have a pretty good season."

Watson says she believes the season will be successful within the strict limits the state has mandated. "Of course it cannot be like it has been in the past right now," Watson said, "But I do think we are going to have tourism."

With festival seasons on hold, the convention center closed, and snowbirds on the fence over whether to come, loss of revenue concerns have a lot of people who own rental homes reevaluating their properties-- both long and short-term-- and selling them.

Mark Dodge is with Desert Resort Management and manages a portfolio of approximately 200 homeowner associations, resorts, single-family homes, and other property developments around the Coachella Valley.

Dodge told the I-Team, "You're seeing a lot of people exiting out of those properties as well for similar reasons. They just can't afford the properties without the rental activities." "Or they're uncertain about what this season is going to look like," Dodge added.

Many of those homes are being purchased by people from Los Angeles and other coastal residents who are moving here full-time or buying weekend homes to escape the big city. "It's probably better in some sense," said Dodge, "because we're going to have more people using properties for themselves and possibly not renting them out long-term or short-term as they were before."

Dodge says he's hearing many Snowbird visitors will delay their travel plans. "Those people coming in for the holidays," Dodge said, "we might not see until January and again might not see for the rest of the year depending on how things transpire for the next six months."

The California Desert Association of REALTORS says home sales and prices have spiked this summer as available inventories have shrunk. "Many sales. They've just been scooped up," said CDAR President, Robin Dufault, "and there are people who don't know if it's time to sell or not, or if they even want to sell."

Dufault said she's still anticipating a healthy season of home-buying, with or without the typical Snowbird traffic.

The local real estate market has benefited, but some just hope for simple normalcy. "We won't nearly have the same type of season as the past until we reopen the convention center because we do rely on groups of people coming in," said Watson. "I think we're going in the right direction, but I wish it was faster," she added.

Wylie reflects on his love of the Coachella Valley saying, "Golf is primary. Riding the bicycle. Hiking is huge for me. I just love the area."

If the conditions allow, both Wylie and Onrait say they can't wait to return to our desert.

"You kind of just go with the flow and take it day by day," said Onrait. "and if things work out, we'll be happy to come."

Coronavirus / I-Team / Investigative / News Headlines / Top Stories

Jeff Stahl

You can watch Jeff every weekday morning on News Channel 3 in the Morning and News Channel 3 at Noon. Learn more about Jeff here.

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