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French-Canadians Rush Home From Richard's Motel In Hollywood After Border Closes Due To COVID-19

Caitie Switalski
Richards Motel colorfully sits on the side of U.S. 1 and Plunkett Street in East Hollywood.

About a month ago, we brought you a story about the tight-knit French-Canadian community that returns for the same vacation every year at Richard's Motel, off U.S. 1, in Hollywood.


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On Wednesday, March 18, the U.S. and Canadian governments closed the border for 'non essential travel' to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 


As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, Broward County has more than 410 known COVID-19 cases. Quebec has more than 1,330 cases.


The few Quebecois remaining in Hollywood spent their last days at Richard's Motel getting some sun by the pool, before their winters in Florida quickly came to an end.




The last time I visited the courtyard of Richard's Motel, it looked like this: 



Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN
Richards Motel is on U.S. 1 just south of Young Circle in Hollywood, and its design is eclectic. There are tropical plants everywhere, a parrot named Mango, koi fish. Statues of an elephant and a soldier guard the entrance. Little paths take you deeper into the place. Here, people are enjoying one of the famous winter Friday night cookouts.

It was a few days before Christmas and people were singing French carols. A group of more than 50 Canadians from Quebec were playing Cornhole. They passed around hot dogs on paper plates during a barbeque.

Now, motel proprietor Richard Clavet jokes by the pool with the few guests who are left: 


"Me, me right now, I'm going to save those hot dogs in case if all the stores close, that's what I'll be eating," Clavet said. 


Clavet was hopeful that this was going to be a really successful tourist season. February was. But March dropped off and soon comes April. 


"We had [planned] a very, very busy month of April. April was all lined up, one reservation after another one," he said. "Everybody that was supposed to come, they called and they canceled. They're not coming. And everybody that was here, or almost everyone, left."


Clavet's rooms are emptying out. People are postponing deposits for future trips. That’s what pays his bills – mortgage, taxes, labor. 


A Broward County emergency order closed all "nonessential" businesses. Hotels and motels cannot accept new reservations, except for people deemed "essential lodgers." Those include healthcare professionals, first responders, National Guard members and people working to stop the slow of COVID-19 or people who don't have a home to go to. Miami-Dade County also has this order in place.  


Now, the French Canadians still left at Richards Motel are making their scattered plans to get home. 


On March 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the country in a video on Twitter:


"I spoke with President Trump this morning," he said. "And we've agreed that both Canada and the United States will temporarily restrict all nonessential travel across the U.S. Canada Border."


The policy shift keeps trade going, but for people like Jean Lalonge and his wife, they're scrambling to get back home from more than 1,800 miles away in Hollywood. 


"I'm here for joy and for my vacation, but don't got a choice, eh?" Lalonge said. 


He and his wife arrived at Richard's Motel for their first time on Feb. 27. 


Last week, he was still poolside around noon, in a swimsuit – wine glass and cigarettes in hand.


Despite the relaxed appearance, Lalonge was in planning mode, about to cut his stay 10 days short. 


"I called my insurance and they told me 'Come back as soon as possible,'" he said. 


Richard said a lot of his guests returned early to Canada or canceled their trips for health insurance reasons.  


Lalonge and his wife drove to Hollywood. Getting back, involved making a three-day plan: 


"The first day I think we'd like to pass Jacksonville. Second day maybe pass North Carolina," he explained. "Then the last day, I-81 North, straight to Quebec. I hope restaurants will be open on the route."


Canadians returning from travel outside the country are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.


Read More: Why The French-Canadian Community Keeps Coming Back To Richard's Motel, Along U.S. 1 In Hollywood


On the other side of the pool in a swinging chair next to the waterfall, Sylvie Beaulieu is reading. She's been here since March 2. 


She actually extended her original stay.


"She was supposed to leave last Monday but because of the panic, she'd rather let the flow of people, just like all leave," Clavet translated for her French. "She decided to let the big rush go and enjoy the weather and everything, and now they're about to leave. ... So I told her that she's a little like me, you know, when everybody goes on one side of the boat I usually go the other side."


After the last guest leaves, Richard still has about 40 full-time employees to think about — at more than eight motel, hotel and rental properties. 


There won't be no work, there won't be no work," he said. "They won't have too many rooms to clean. It will be difficult. It'll be difficult for me, it'll be difficult for them, it'll be difficult for everyone." 


Before COVID-19 started spreading across America, Clavet had been in the middle of a real estate deal to buy another motel, one with 26 rooms north of Young Circle on U.S. 1 in Hollywood. Now, he doesn't see that happening.


Despite how quiet it's getting around here without those Friday night hot dogs and happy hours from a happier time. 


"I'm pretty confident that after every storm, you know, the good weather, the good times always comes back," Clavet said.