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Longboat Key Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 1 month ago

For Longboat Key snowbirds, many happy returns

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With the doors open to overseas and Canadian visitors, residents see potential for a strong season.
by: Nat Kaemmerer and Mark Bergin

Patrick and Sandy Bogert were so determined not to spend another winter in Toronto, they plotted a James Bond-esque escape to Longboat Key from the Great White North, ready to put their plan into action as the mercury began dropping this fall.

With the southbound highway checkpoints between Canada and the United States still closed in October, the Bogerts booked a helicopter hop across the border to Buffalo, where a car was waiting for the ride to the Sunshine State.

They hadn’t been back to Longboat for 19 months, so they were ready to roll. More than ready.

“It took about 20 seconds to decide to come back,” Patrick Bogert said.

Patrick and Sandy Bogert made it to Longboat Key early enough to display Patrick's photography at the Town Hall art show in November.

But before the first bars of their mission’s iconic theme music could play, a Plan B rendered the shaken-not-stirred operation unnecessary. On Nov. 8, the U.S.-Canada border reopened – at midnight, naturally.

“There happens to be a Comfort Inn that’s literally three minutes from the border … so we decided we would just kind of wake up whenever we woke up and go,” Patrick Bogert said. “We woke up about 3:30 in the morning, got in the car, drove over the bridge and we were really quite surprised. There hardly seemed to be anybody there.” 

Their papers in order, the Bogerts were on their way in 15 minutes, though a border agent called the midnight rush three hours earlier a "tsunami.'' From there, they started heading south with a flurry of other Ontario license plates.

“It’s wonderful to be back in our house,” Patrick Bogert said. "We love being on Longboat Key, and the beach is great. We’re finding things we’d forgotten that we tucked away … and we feel very safe here. We are very cautious, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the past year and a half, so it’s not new to us … It’s great to see our friends again and touch base and see how everybody is and how they’ve gotten through the time.”

All around Longboat Key, there are reasons to believe things are looking up this season. You see them on the tennis courts, the golf courses, at the tourist attractions, on the roads and stores. More people, more positive attitudes, more smiles.

At this time last year, COVID-19 positivity rates were spiking following Thanksgiving travel; vaccines were not yet available and mask usage was common. And though word of a new  COVID-19 variant is again circulating, with entry restrictions in place for foreign nationals from southern Africa, Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren expressed her optimism this was the season things return to normal.

 “Maybe (it will) go back to the way it was in the early ‘90s, which was huge,'' she said. "We had tons of South Americans (and) Europeans and a lot of people don’t remember that because they weren’t here, but I was here and it was enormous.”

Longboat Key Public Tennis Center Manager Kay Thayer said she’s seen a steady influx in the last weeks. League play resumed this fall and a USTA seniors event took to the courts this week with players arriving from all over.

Outdoor tennis this time of year is something hard to come by in the northern climates.

A player prepares a serve Monday in the tournament at the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center.

“There’s a lot of Canadians here,” she said. “There’s definitely a lot more people that didn’t come last year that are back this year.”

Tennis players Dave Huff and John Nicoletti traveled from Sebastian on Florida’s east coast to participate in this week’s USTA tournament. They play in the 75 and older age bracket and said they are happy to be back on the circuit.

Happy enough to kid each other about their ages and the next step up in age brackets, that is.

“He’s just gotta live until January,” Huff joked about his friend.

Over at Longboat Key Club, Golf Director Terry O’Hara said he spoke this week with a few members from Canada who hadn’t returned to the island in two years. Florida’s rules are much more relaxed compared to strict lockdown measures up north.

“It’s a change for them because they’re coming down and it’s a whole different ballgame here,” O’Hara said.

Driving some of the resurgence is the 12-month change in the pandemic landscape. Longboat Key’s vaccine rate among the island’s full-time residents has been close to 100% since July 2021. Longboat Key also dropped its mandatory mask policy inside town facilities on Oct. 19. Most of the vaccine talk revolves around booster shots.

As of Nov. 19, the Florida Department of Health provided Longboat Key data that shows Manatee County’s new case positivity rate is 2.4% and Sarasota County’s is 2.5%. Last summer, those figures were in double digits.

Visitors and residents mingled at Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory over the Thanksgiving weekend. (Katie Garwood)

Loefgren said her commute to the Chamber of Commerce offices from the mainland is beginning to look like late winter instead of early in the holiday season.

“It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and then last week I got stopped just over the bridge, which is where I normally get stopped in February,” she said.

Resident Cyndi Seamon said she’s seen evidence of a robust season around town, too.

“I would say snowbird season is going to be busier than it has been,” Seamon said. “I was at Mote (Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on Nov. 18), and there were more people there than I had seen in several months,” Seamon said.

Euphemia Haye owner and chef Ray Arpke said he's not worried about crowds, be's concerned about getting enough food to feed them. 

“Customers are not the problem, it’s finding employees and goods,” Arpke said. “I mean, I can’t find graham cracker crumbs for God’s sake. We’re having to buy boxes of graham crackers and grind them up to make our pies.”

Arpke said Euphemia Haye had one of the best summers the restaurant has ever had in its 41-year history. The restaurant is typically closed on Mondays, but is open six days a week.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be normal,” Arpke said. “It’s going to be busy. I can guarantee you that because it already is.”

Business owners aren’t the only ones making adjustments with the return of season.

Fire Chief Paul Dezzi said the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department is entering its busiest time of year, when the town’s population normally swells to its peak through March.

The department keeps four firefighter-paramedics at all times in the town’s two fire stations, regardless of the time of year.

“We have more calls during that time,” Dezzi said. “(The other day), we had nine calls out here. During the season, we may get 15-16 calls, but that’s a little high right now.”

Ultimately, many people told the Observer that it’s nice to see familiar faces as more people come down for the season.

“I’ve seen three or four guys, Canadian people, that I hadn’t seen in two years,” O’Hara said. “They’re like, ‘Thank God this is done with because I couldn’t take it anymore.’”

 

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

See All Articles by Mark

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