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Don’t expect to start seeing all those Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia license plates in Brevard County, which are typical as the seasons change.

At least 500 paddlers — mostly from Canada — will not be making their annual trek to Indian Harbour Beach this fall, due to their country’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.

World-class kayak and canoe paddlers from teams from several nations, including Canada, train in the warm weather of Indian Harbour Beach at Oars and Paddles Park. Several of these paddlers compete in the Olympics, and spend up to six months in Brevard, but the teams cannot come this year due to travel restrictions from COVID-19. (Photo: TIM SHORTT/ FLORIDA TODAY)

“Oh, goodness, we’d usually get 500 Canadians down here and they would come for just under six months, from November and they’d have to leave in April,” said Kristin Cusimano, the recreation director for the City of Indian Harbour Beach. The city controls Oars and Paddles Park, the hotbed for world-class canoe and kayak paddlers.

She learned Wednesday afternoon in an e-mail that the Canadian national team, with a couple of gold medal contenders for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and all the junior programs and developmental programs would not be coming.

“The simple answer is that the Canadian paddlers will not be training in Florida due to the ongoing border restrictions,” said Colleen Coderre, Communications Lead with Canoe Kayak Canada out of Ottawa, Ontario, the home base for Canada’s national team.

“And last year was (supposed to be) an Olympic year and they had to leave early in March because Canada was getting ready to close its borders,” Cusimano said. “So, we already had one hit and now we’ve got another hit coming, especially for restaurants, housing and grocery stores.”  

The paddlers’ impact will indeed affect Brevard County’s winter tourism numbers, but the real effect won’t be known until after the annual “snowbird” migration from the harsh northern winter.

Peter Cranis, Executive Director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, is cautious on the early figures.

“Well, it’s not like losing the AAU Junior Olympics, but every loss right now hurts,” he wrote in an e-mail to FLORIDA TODAY. “I’m sure our overall international visitation has (already) been affected by COVID, but we don’t have clear numbers on this because they typically arrive through Orlando or Sanford. We estimate it’s about 5% of our business.”

The paddlers would be just the start of Brevard’s winter economic losses from tourism.

“As far as this specific group — 500 people over 6 months — I’m just running a scenario … let’s say they spend $3,600 ($20 a day) while they are here on room and board (assuming they share a bedroom) and anything else they spend on — could be about $1.8 million — so not insignificant,” Cranis wrote.

Cusimano said many of the athletes previously stayed at The Pines in Indian Harbour Beach before they switched to longer-term rentals a few years ago, so lately it’s been in apartments, such as the nearby Brittany complex, or renting homes in the area. They also use nearby gym facilities.

Other national team members from Germany, France and even Pakistan have trained here. Between those countries and Canada, they collected six rowing medals (three gold) at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil. Canada’s silver medal came in women’s lightweight double sculls (Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee).  

According to Cusimano, the ages of those who train here range from 15-18 for the junior teams, while the bulk of the athletes average from the late teens to the late 20s, in hopes of making their national squads.

“As of right now, they’ll instead stay inside Canada, hoping to find a warm location …,” Cusimano said. “(Coderre with Canoe Kayak Canada) assumes all the other rowers will follow suit. But we haven’t heard from Germany yet. They may be a little more lenient in their travel.” 

In mid-August, Canada’s prime minister announced travel restrictions that limit travel to Canada, and to “avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice.” Canadians were warned they could have a hard time getting back into the country, especially should a COVID spike occur. They were also warned that insurance may not cover medical expenses during a trip outside the country.

And there’s a mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon re-entering, one that carries penalties that may include a fine of up to $750,000; six months of jail time; and/or being removed from Canada and banned from entering for one year.

Earlier this summer, Major League Baseball forbid the Toronto Blue Jays to play at their home stadium due to similar restrictions. The Jays now make their home in Buffalo this season.

So, what will Oars and Paddles Park look like this winter? Well, rowers and paddlers from the Space Coast Crew, Row Brevard Inc., the Breast Cancer Survivors’ Dragon Boat teams, and nearby residents will easily fill the parking lot, especially on weekends. 

“We’ll have to see, but ’empty’ is still full for us,” Cusimano said.

Contact Grossman at 321-242-3676 or [email protected]. Support our work by subscribing to FLORIDA TODAY.

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