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“COVID refugees”: with low numbers of new cases, Nova Scotia is seeing an influx of people avoiding disease hot spots

By October 26, 2020November 5th, 2020No Comments

“COVID Refugees.” That’s how Dave Rapson describes why he’s currently living in Nova Scotia instead of the United States, where he’s a full-time economics professor at the University of California in Davis. Like all his colleagues, Professor Rapson is lecturing and interacting with his students via Zoom. 

The Halifax native has lived for years in California, dutifully coming home each summer to spend quality time with his folks at the cottage. He waited until mid-August this year, hoping to put them at less risk and intending to return south for the fall semester. Instead he wound up staying. 

“I was in quarantine here, and California suddenly began burning with all these forest fires,” recalls Rapson. “I started thinking: COVID is bad down there. I don’t like the politics and polarization down there. The state’s on fire. It’s beautiful in Nova Scotia. There are no cases and no fires here. So it was just an accumulation of reasons to extend my stay.” Rapson now rents a month-to-month condo in downtown Halifax. 

Photo credit: Dave Rapson

The migration of Dave Rapson and others in this article is one of the reasons the housing market is suddenly red hot in Nova Scotia after months of lockdown this spring, when no one went anywhere and new listings were few and far between. Last week, the Canadian Real Estate Association reported that compared to September 2019, residential sales for the same month this year in Nova Scotia soared by 38%. Gains were seen in all parts of the province, where more people are looking to buy than there are people ready to sell. In Metro Halifax, the average house price jumped from $320,900 last September to $381,792 this September.

While inter-provincial migration statistics for 2020 won’t be available until early next year, it’s hard to find anyone in Nova Scotia who doesn’t have a story about someone who’s moved to the province over the past three months from big cities like Toronto and Montreal. Uncontrolled outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus continues to restrict social interaction in those areas to “just family.” Urban pleasures like going out to catch live music and theatre, or to dine with friends and colleagues are becoming distant memories. The Atlantic Bubble’s low COVID infection rate seems to be a factor in the decision of people in all age groups to seek refuge in the East.

Working from home, or Living where you work?

Twenty-nine year-old Anneke van den Hof grew up in Halifax. She’s been living and working in Toronto for six years as an account services supervisor for an advertising firm with more than 100 employees. Anneke enjoys her job and when her office closed in mid-March as cases of COVID began emerging in Ontario, she found herself working 100% remotely. 

Suddenly it didn’t matter if van den Hof was Zooming with clients and graphic designers from her bedroom in Toronto or back at her parents’ home in Halifax. Her Type 1 diabetes also put her in a higher risk category if she was exposed to COVID. That was another factor that influenced her decision to fly east just as the NBA season was shuttering.

“I only packed enough clothes for two weeks,” she says with a hearty laugh. Two weeks has turned into seven months — and perhaps a permanent re-location. Van den Hof appears to be putting down roots. She’s bought a dog and this month she purchased a two-bedroom condo in the Hydrostone area. 

Although she would have preferred to rent, van den Hof says rents are now so high here it made more sense to buy. Ironically, she has continued to pay rent on an apartment in Toronto she once shared with two other people because the lease was a rare good deal, and it would have cost the same amount to put her stuff in storage. Van den Hof says that’s an atypical response compared to several of her girfriends, who quickly exited their Toronto leases this July as the mercury climbed above 37 degrees and it became clear COVID wasn’t going away soon.

“You pay $2000 a month to live in Toronto — and it’s not Toronto anymore. You can’t go out to eat or drink or see a show or see your friend. There’s no fun,” she says.

Van den Hof and five friends who graduated from the same Halifax high school returned home this summer, where they continued to work for companies based in Toronto and Edmonton. Three of the “summer crew” went back this fall and three have remained. Van den Hof says her boss has hinted her john st. advertising office is unlikely to reopen before next spring. She says she had always planned to come back to Nova Scotia “some day,” but felt the timing would depend on having made her mark in Toronto, where she says there are better jobs and better money.

“What’s been kind of cool about 2020 (not that I’m saying the pandemic was in any way worth it) is that it’s made living in Halifax an option sooner than I ever thought possible,” explains van den Hof. “I haven’t had to abandon my professional ambitions, because I kept my job.”

“There’s no doubt that many people who’ve made a go of it in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and who now have flexible work schedules, and strong friend/family ties to Nova Scotia are making the move home,” says Mark Mullane, a Dartmouth real estate agent with Red Door Realty. “For me, this isn’t a new phenomenon, because over the past five years I’ve had a lot of clients who have young families who felt cities like Toronto or Vancouver simply weren’t viable for them long-term. But recent factors such as the pandemic have made a lot of people re-think their options and perhaps bump up their ‘move to Nova Scotia’ date.”

COVID Health Concerns

Rod Conoley also finds himself moving to Nova Scotia sooner than he had planned. The 64-year-old Conoley grew up on the Gaspé Peninsula but attended the Nova Scotia Agricultural College as a young student. He used to operate a company that sold medical compression stockings. His daughter Kayla graduated from NSCAD, and she and her husband Brent Halverson now own and operate the iconic Earltown General Store 20 minutes from Tatamagouche. Conoley and his late wife visited frequently and eventually planned to retire here. 

After driving from Ottawa, Rod and his son Craig are part way through their 14-day quarantine in a rented chalet on the North Shore. By the end of this week, Rod intends to visit a property he’s considering buying to become his permanent home. “I want to find a place with a view of the ocean that’s close to Kayla and my grandson without interfering with their life.”

The Conoley family will never forget 2020. Rod’s wife Bertha died from brain cancer this past March. In June, Rod underwent liver transplant surgery that saved his life. His son Craig was the donor. Their recovery and COVID restrictions delayed the virtual memorial service for Bertha until early this month. Then the spike in COVID cases in Ottawa accelerated Rod’s decision to move to rural Nova Scotia. 

Craig Conoley and his father Rod Conoley. Photo contributed

“Let’s beat COVID and get out of Dodge,” he told his son. “I’d been very careful and every time I went for bloodwork in Ottawa, there were mega-lineups and I had to sneak around through the back door. I knew moving to a place like the North Shore of Nova Scotia, I wouldn’t have to be so fearful. COVID was a factor that pushed the move forward more quickly.” 

Once Conoley made up his mind to sell his house in Ottawa, he received 20 offers within seven days. “The reason we sold our house quickly was because so many people in Ottawa are living in apartments or condos with children and suddenly finding themselves working from home. They need or want more space. I had a nice house with an in-ground pool and it sold fast.”

That may also explain what real estate agent Mark Mullane is noticing. Even though he is handling more calls from people outside the province, the bulk of his activity is still being driven by locals. 

“I’ve never had more out-of-town clients on my roster than right now,” Mullane says. “I have clients not only from all over Canada, but I’m fielding a lot of inquires from the United States as well. But even though my buyer client list has many more out-of-town buyers on it, I’ve seen much larger growth from local clients.” 

Of the potential homebuyers on his list, Mullane estimates only about 10% are from outside Nova Scotia. Shaun Cathcart, the senior economist for the Canadian Real Estate Association, noted this month “reasons have been cited for this — pent-up demand from the lockdowns, government support to date, and ultra-low interest rates. But I think another wildcard factor to consider, which has no historical precedent, is the value of one’s home during this time. Home has been our workplace, our kids’ schools, the gym, the park and more. Personal space is more important than ever.”

Anneke van den Hof isn’t sure if her move back to Halifax is a temporary or permanent one. What she misses most is hanging out at the office with her colleagues and friends. She says there is good and bad about “working from home” in a business that requires teamwork among creative people to keep clients happy.

“It’s hard to plan for anything right now, “she notes. “If and when the office reopens, there’s enough that I miss about the in-office experience that I think I would not want to work entirely remotely forever.” 

When show biz becomes no biz

Joe Cobden is in a similar kind of limbo, but without the regular paycheque. The self-employed professional actor and comedy writer left Los Angeles at the end of February with a few days’ worth of clothes. He was flying back to Canada to renew his travel insurance through the actor’s union. COVID struck and since then, he’s been writing scripts, directing music videos, and channeling his energy into voice work for animated films and video games. Occasionally that involves travel to Toronto and another bout of self-isolation at a cottage on the South Shore or the family home in Halifax.

It’s a dreadful time to be in the entertainment business and “live theatre will be one of the last to come back,” Cobden acknowledges, although he thinks Nova Scotia and Canada could benefit from “a reverse brain drain” from Hollywood. Cobden is working to find another buyer for “Toothpix” — a sketch comedy series based on yelp restaurant reviews he co-created for Quibi before the streaming platform for phones ran into financial trouble.

Joe Cobden. Still from “Brick and Mortar” trailer.

Rod Conoley’s son Craig is also unsure what lies ahead for him. He closed his video production company in Ottawa to take care of both his parents. Until more businesses re-open in Ontario, he doubts whether shooting and editing commercials is viable. The 37-year-old is hoping the documentary film he made about his Dad’s medical journey could find its way to film festivals. Meanwhile, Craig is scouting to see whether he can find enough work in Nova Scotia to also make a move here.

Temporary or Permanent?

“COVID refugee” David Rapson hopes to extend his stay in Nova Scotia for at least another six months. After that, his head and heart will have to fight it out. From a career perspective, he’s reluctant to leave his job as a tenured professor at a university with strong support for his research in environmental policy. Yet he finds himself surprised at how strong a pull he feels to re-locate to Nova Scotia.

“I’m feeling this connection with this place that is very powerful, and it’s a feeling I don’t have in California where I’ve lived for 12 years and also have good friends,” said Rapson, who is 43. “But it doesn’t have the feeling of being home, and I just don’t know where to go with that. I don’t see the COVID situation getting better in California and I am really enjoying my life here. At some point, in-person teaching will start up again and I’ll be forced to go back.”

How many of these returning or new Nova Scotians stay over the next couple of years as the nature of work changes and a vaccine is developed to stop COVID is a big question mark. The answer could have both interesting and financial implications for the future of the province.