Ottawa launches $850,000 ad campaign advising Canadians to stay home during COVID-19

The federal government has launched an $850,000 digital-based ad campaign warning Canadians about the perils of travelling abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could include grounded flights or lax health rules at their destination.

The ads follow a CBC News report in late September that some snowbirds were planning to fly south this winter, despite the government’s advisory to avoid non-essential travel abroad. Since that time, a number of snowbirds have already left Canada.

Several of the new ads target snowbirds, including a video posted on Facebook and Twitter in which a forlorn older man lies in a hospital bed while sombre music plays in the background. A caption at the bottom of the screen warns that seniors are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.

The government launched the ad campaign in November “on various digital platforms” and travel websites “to reach multiple target audiences,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jason Kung said in an email. The campaign will run until March 2021 during peak travel times, he said. 

Kung didn’t provide details about the individual ads. CBC News found three anti-travel videos the government posted on social media in December and ads targeting snowbirds in two magazines that launched in November and December respectively. 

‘Missed the boat’?

Some snowbirds who are already at their winter destination question the timing of the campaign blitz.

“I think they missed the boat with that one,” said Lorraine Douglas, 67, of Osoyoos, B.C. On Oct. 24, she and her husband, David, flew to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, where they own a condo. She said the flight was full.

“Most people who come to this area of Baja [Mexico] are coming down in October,” she said.

Kung said that “elements of the campaign were released in November when older adults typically consider travelling down south.” He didn’t specify which elements.

Regarding the campaign’s anti-travel message, Douglas said it doesn’t phase her because COVID-19 safety regulations are strict in her area.

“You have to wear a mask, even if you’re walking on the street,” she said. “We’re outside in the sunshine…. So we actually feel safer here than we would at home.”

Lorraine Douglas and her husband, David, of Osoyoos, B.C., flew to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, on Oct. 24, where they own a condo. (Submitted by Lorraine Douglas)

The federal government argues Canadians are safer at home, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many parts of the world.

But the government won’t stop Canadians from travelling abroad. Although the Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential travel, Canadians can still fly to the Unites States, as well as to other countries with open borders, such as Mexico. They can also return to Canada, as long as they quarantine for 14 days.

Just over one million Canadian air passengers have entered Canada since March 21, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Canadian snowbirds typically head to U.S. Sunbelt states for the winter. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 244,244 Canadians have flown to the United States since October. 

You can have fun at home

One of the government’s new video ads targets families pondering travelling abroad over the holidays. It reminds them that the pandemic isn’t over and they can entertain themselves at home with such activities as playing in the snow.

Some of the most serious messages are aimed at snowbirds, including a large ad posted in the latest edition of Ontario’s Fifty-Five Plus magazine.

It warns seniors that along with being more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, they also face potential pitfalls, such as inadequate medical coverage and less strict health measures at their destination compared to Canada.

Shelton Papple and his wife, Sandra, on the golf course in Fort Myers, Fla. The snowbirds travelled to Florida on Dec. 4, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Sandra Papple)

Shelton Papple, 66, of Brantford, Ont., said he didn’t see any of the government’s advertising before Dec. 4. That’s when he and his wife, Sandra, flew to Buffalo, N.Y., and shipped their car to the city so they could drive the rest of the way to Florida — despite a closed U.S. land border. 

Papple said that contrary to the ominous ads, he and his wife feel safe in in their neighbourhood in Fort Myers. They have invested in medical insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage and live in a gated community where people are taking COVID-19 precautions, he said.

“Everybody’s wearing a mask, everybody’s social distancing. When we play golf, everybody takes her own cart,” said Papple. “We’re doing no different than what we would do at home … except there’s more to do and it’s outside.”

But there are many Canadians, including snowbirds, who have opted not to travel abroad this winter. They include Roy Graham, 65, of Toronto.

Roy Graham of Toronto normally spends the winters in Rotonda West, Fla. But he’s not going this year due to fears of being infected with COVID-19 while abroad. (Submitted by Roy Graham)

The snowbird and his adult daughter normally spend the winter in Rotonda West, Fla. But this year, Graham believes the stakes are too high for himself and his daughter, who has health issues.

“The uncertainty of what’s happening down south, with COVID running rampant in different states, you just don’t know what to expect.”

Graham viewed the government’s video ad targeting snowbirds at the request of CBC News and said the message it sends reinforces his decision not to travel this winter.

“It touches a nerve,” he said. “You don’t want to be a statistic.”

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