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Stay or go home: the snowbird’s agonizing dilemma

Geoff Leary and his wife Kathy Fee drove non-stop in their SUV from their condo in Vero Beach, Fla., to their home in Eastham, worried about COVID-19 germs at hotels along the route. They are happy to be home.
Geoff Leary and his wife Kathy Fee drove non-stop in their SUV from their condo in Vero Beach, Fla., to their home in Eastham, worried about COVID-19 germs at hotels along the route. They are happy to be home.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The snowbirds headed from Massachusetts to Florida in early winter, in a different world, before death stalked the nation.

But now, in beachfront condos and golf communities and second homes on man-made lakes, panic is rising, as retirees far from family and their regular doctors try to figure out the unknowable: Is it safer to stay, or to go? Should we cut our time short, or extend it and try to ride this thing out?

As fears of cancelled flights and quarantines mount, and Florida explodes with COVID-19, some people are frantically packing up a winter’s worth of life and fleeing north.

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Senior citizens are driving through the night. They are traveling with their own pillow cases and bleach, and spending tense nights in motels. They are flying commercial airlines in masks and gloves and wiping down armrests and seat belt buckles, afraid to use the lavatory or take a bag of chips from the flight attendant, or chipping in thousands of dollars for semi-private flights with trusted companions.

The decision is complicated by a scary new reality: what’s allowed today may not be tomorrow. On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker urged anyone arriving from out-of-state to self-quarantine for two weeks. On Saturday, President Trump said he was considering enforceable quarantines for the New York region, but then backed off. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

“You hear rumors — they are going to close the [Sagamore and Bourne] bridges, or they’re going to take your temperature when you get off the flight,” said Kathleen McSweeney, a retired high school principal from Wellfleet. (Indeed, thousands have signed a petition to allow only year-round residents and trucks to enter.)

She was on the phone from Florence, S.C., where she was, warily, spending the night at a Marriott after leaving Naples, Fla., at 8:30 a.m.

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The trip already had been strange. People were sleeping in their cars at rest stop parking lots. Traffic was eerily light. Restaurants were shuttered. But it was a journey she had to make.

“My mom [in Bridgewater] is 81,” she said. “God forbid anything happens to her, I want to be home.”

In Sarasota, Fla., Diane Lapkin and her husband — alarmed after an infectious disease specialist warned them Florida is the next COVID-19 hot zone — convened a Zoom call with their children.

The group decided that the couple would be safer in Florida, in their single family house on a golf course, than in their Boston condo, with its elevators and young, potentially less careful, neighbors.

But neither choice felt good to Lapkin. “We felt the risks of flying were too great for us,” she said. “But what if one of us has a fall, or gets sick?”

If they need help, she said with a joyless laugh, her younger daughter has volunteered to wear adult diapers and drive, with her daughter, through the night from the Boston suburbs, to rescue them.

But that’s a mission Lapkin wouldn’t allow. “We have lived full lives,” she said, “and I would never want my children to be at risk for us.”

Sharon Gale, a retired nurse, and her husband, Rick, decided to make a different calculation, to cut their Florida trip short and return to Bedford.

The couple was listening to the news down in Naples on a recent morning, none of it good, when Sharon turned to her husband. “I want to go home,” she told him. “I agree,” he said.

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They made a room reservation at the SpringHill Suites in Delaware, but they arrived to find a locked door. “They had to buzz us in,” Gale said. “They didn’t want too many people in the lobby.”

Gale’s daughter Amy Walsh, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, is relieved her parents are home. “You think about the population of Florida, and all the elderly people there, and the impact of that many people needing ventilators,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, Kathy Fee and her husband were six hours into the 1,400-mile drive from Vero Beach to Cape Cod.

Her worst fear, she said by phone from the passenger seat, was running out of gas in “scary states like New York or New Jersey,” COVID-19 hot spots.

The couple was traveling with disinfecting wipes, and meatloaf. “We’re going to have meatloaf breakfast sandwiches, meatloaf sandwiches, and meatloaf meatloaf,” she said.

Afraid to stop at a hotel, they planned to drive straight through and sleep in shifts, but Fee doubted she’d get any rest. “I get nervous and can’t sleep because I’m afraid he’ll fall asleep while he’s driving,” she said.

“This,” she said, “is like every bad dystopian movie you’ve ever seen.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.