It’s not clear where the Alabama Minnesota Club will meet this winter because no one knows how many of its members will be heading south.

Composed of several hundred Minnesotans who spend all or part of their winter along the balmy Gulf Coast, the loosely organized group stages weekly Tuesday breakfasts. Members, often decked out in maroon sweatshirts emblazoned with the club logo, also get together to pitch horseshoes. And over hands of euchre, 500 or the cribbage board, they share the news from home, trash talk the Vikings and discuss the weather that they are missing — the more bitter, the better.

“We’ve built another family with these new friends,” said Nancy Poferl, 64, of White Bear Lake, president of the club.

Last month, Poferl surveyed members about their winter plans. Most said they intended to spend at least some time in Alabama. But about a quarter of the regulars said they plan to opt out this year because of concern about the coronavirus, expressing worries about exposure while traveling or wariness about transmission rates in the Sun Belt, where cases have surged.

Poferl said she and her husband, Jeff, will make the 1,300-mile drive to their beachside rental house after Christmas.

“It doesn’t have an elevator or common space to worry about and the guy we rent from will sanitize before we arrive, so we think it’s OK,” she said.

This winter, Minnesota snowbirds who fly south and west — landing in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other temperate perches — face a dilemma, in part because many of these snowbird hot spots are now COVID hot spots.

Do they take a chance and leave their established bubbles, knowing that the virus poses a particular risk to people over 60, especially those with underlying health conditions? Or do they hunker down in the homes they are likely already weary of and wait out winter here?

Plenty of Minnesotans are currently weighing the options.

The Survey of Older Minnesotans conducted by the state Department of Human Services found that 44,000 respondents 50 and older said that they live outside the state for part of the year.

“When we look at surveys and Census Bureau numbers, we see this seasonal pattern is prevalent among certain income levels,” said Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower. “There’s been a slight increase in the number of older adults leaving and that makes sense because there are more older adults now, as baby boomers age.”

But the pandemic may put a freeze on that increase.

“Renters worry about the road trip,” said Cheryl Leitschuh, a Burnsville independent travel agent. “There’s still concern about air travel. They’re packing coolers for the road, renting motor homes, even planning to sleep in their cars because they don’t trust the hotels.”

Leitschuh, who billed her business as “Adventure Grandma Travel,” recently closed because so few of her clients are traveling now, with cruises and tours on hold and limited access to international destinations.

But she noted that rental owners in warm-weather destinations are taking steps to make visitors feel secure.

“They’re pushing keyless entry and talking up their sanitizing procedures,” she said. “Some are extending their cancellation windows once people put their money down so renters can back out.”

Playing it safe

Lynn and Don Remington reluctantly concluded that they will spend this winter in their Minneapolis condominium instead of in the Miami Beach high-rise where they’ve rented an apartment for six months during the past six years.

“We’ll be watching snowplows instead of sitting on a balcony enjoying the ocean breeze and watching cruise ships come in and out,” sighed Lynn.

The retired couple have enjoyed Miami Beach for its walkability, sidewalk cafes and diversity, with its significant international population of transplants and visitors.

“The people-watching is fabulous. We get a big fat kick out of it,” Lynn said, adding “Florida’s [COVID] numbers are high and it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. We’re terribly disappointed but we are playing it safe.”

Barb Tveit hasn’t changed her plans to once again rent a place in Arizona. The first year after retiring in 2018, Tveit, 66, left her Coon Rapids townhouse for three months in the desert.

“It was 85 when I left at the end of March and two days after I got home there was a huge snowstorm, so I decided to stay longer the next year. Now I’m going to spend five months there,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, I have no interest in winter.”

Tveit’s Arizona community is inhabited by other snowbirds, which she finds reassuring.

“The majority of older people are cautious; we don’t have college students and the party crowd,” she said. “Last spring we did driveway happy hour with the neighbors where we could sit and talk but keep our distance. I can be safe there.”

A new breed of snowbird

One veteran trend watcher predicts that a new category of snowbird will emerge this winter. They are younger, employed rather than retired and aren’t necessarily interested in golf or beach combing.

“A lot of people working from home who’ve maintained their sanity by getting outdoors and entertaining on their screen porch are not going to spend winter here,” said Mary Meehan, CEO of Panoramix Global, a Minneapolis-based consumer research firm. “Fresh air is a solution to isolation, that’s what they’re going for.”

Meehan said these nontraditional snowbirds will also choose nontraditional destinations.

“They’re looking at alternative places where the winter is not as extreme, but it’s not a pool-and-beach location,” she said. “Someplace where they could be outdoors, eat out with patio seating. If they like to hike, maybe they would rent in Colorado, Utah or the mountains in Tennessee.”

Meehan admits it’s not an option for many Minnesotans.

“It’s a luxurious dilemma for a small segment of the population,” she said. “Many people don’t have this choice.”

Even Poferl, who has been making the journey to Alabama for nine winters, doesn’t take her snowbird status for granted.

“We worked hard so we can do this,” she said.

This year, she and her husband have booked a house-on-stilts for 10 weeks. Both avid golfers, they first heard about the area from friends.

“We said, ‘Let’s try it,’ and it’s been pretty wonderful,” Jeff Poferl said. “I don’t want to say too much or everyone will want to come down.”

They expect this year to be pretty wonderful, too, despite the pandemic.

“If the Alabama cases go up and there’s a lockdown, we’d rather be stuck there where we can be outside than be stuck here where it’s cold and slippery,” said Nancy Poferl.

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.