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Coronavirus Florida: Traveling back home, snowbirds? Doctors recommend you stay put.

Snowbirds who normally would return to their home states this time of year are trying to decide whether to travel amid the spread of coronavirus.
Traffic heads west along Interstate 275 (at right) toward the Howard Frankland Bridge in Tampa. [TIMES (2017) | Elliott, Loren]

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TAMPA — It’s like clockwork every year for Lynn Byrne.

She’s one of many northern residents who travel south for the winter to avoid cold weather and venture back home in the spring. Around these parts, we call them snowbirds.

The spread of coronavirus has some snowbirds wondering whether they should return home as they normally would or stay longer and ride it out.

“I know a lot of people who have left,” said Byrne, 65, who is from New York and winters in Homosassa. “They’ve left out of panic and anxiety...but I felt a lot better when I decided I was going to stay.”

Several experts contacted by The Tampa Bay Times say she made the right choice. They advised snowbirds to stay at their winter homes in Florida rather than take the risk of traveling. This is particularly true because the vast majority of snowbirds are older — the most vulnerable population to get sick and die from the disease.

“People shouldn’t travel unless they absolutely have to,” said Dr. Marc Yacht, who led the health department in Pasco County before retiring in 2007. “The wisest thing is to stay put wherever you’re living and (practice) social distancing.”

Yacht said if snowbirds absolutely must travel, they should get to their destination as quickly as they can with minimal stops.

He said while being in a car will isolate traveling snowbirds from other people, the stops along the way could lead to more interactions.

“You have to use your common sense,” Yacht said. “Really try to reduce interactions with other people."

Byrne, who has been wintering in this area for four years, said her Homosassa rental is actually up next week. She and her friend, Francis Driscoll, will be moving into another friend’s empty home in Wildwood.

“I understand how people feel right now when they see my license plate from New York,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Why doesn’t she go home?’"

Meanwhile, couples like Renee and Lee Schumaker feel safer leaving Florida before the coronavirus can get worse. Otherwise, they run the risk of getting stuck in a state that isn’t technically their home, Renee Schumaker, 72, said.

“It’s so eerie here now...It’s unsettling,” she said.

But the Schumakers, who have been coming to Florida every spring for 50 years, aren’t leaving because they think Florida is dangerous. They’re leaving because they’re worried about what they would do if they got the coronavirus.

“We’d have to stay for 14 days and then three days after to make sure we’re symptom-free," Renee said. "We can’t just stay in some guy’s condo on the beach.”

They’re driving back home this week. They plan to stop near Knoxville, Tenn. to break up the 22-hour drive back to Michigan. They’re armed with wipes and bags (to wrap over their hands when they stop to pump gas) but even then, she’s still concerned for their safety.

Byrne, who turned 65 on Monday, said the situation has created a sense of unease. She normally celebrates her birthday but she wouldn’t let her friend venture out for a cake.

“I’m looking for the creamiest cake I can get my hands on when this thing is over,” she said.

She has spent much of her time of late watching reruns of Downton Abbey and catching up on some reading. She’s even talked with her mother about her experiences during the polio epidemic and scarlet fever.

“We have been lucky for so long,” Byrne said. “We don’t know how to react to these things and live in these situations. So, we’re learning, again. Americans are not used to relaxing, so if there’s any silver lining to this it’s learning how to relax.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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