July 19, 2020

Travel in the age of Covid-19

I’m sitting on the living room couch at my brother’s house, a couple of tuckered out dogs napping at my feet listening to him practice some sort of stadium rock riffs on his electric guitar. It’s nice to be around some family after months and months of social distancing and more evenings and weekends alone than I care to contemplate. Time once again to pick up the laptop, let the fingers race over the keys vomiting out whatever words are built up in my brain and put forward another entry in the Accidental Plague Diaries. I suppose this one should be about the challenges of long distance travel in this Covid-19 era. I do all my air travel on Delta these days due to my location in the Southeast and my researches into the responses of airlines to the needs of the corona virus era suggested to me that there was no real need to change that as their protocols were about as good as you could get given the configurations of airplanes and airports. As, in some ways, I was more concerned about time in airports than the plane itself, I decided to drive over to Atlanta on Friday night and spend the night in an airport area hotel, ensuring myself minimal airport time and no need to make a plane change at one of the hubs. I have all my points through Hilton properties and Hampton Inn has been my go to for years. I took advantage of the on line check in and check out through my phone app together with downloading a digital key so I didn’t have to linger in a lobby. The room was clean, I wiped off surfaces before I touched them and hope for the best.

The next morning, drive through Starbucks, park at the Atlanta airport in the economy lot, and mask in place, enter the terminal. I am pleased to say that no matter what the idiot governor of Georgia may be up to, masking at the airport was universal with the exception of people eating in the food court. (I did not stop). The airport was nowhere near as busy as usual so maintaining distance was not difficult, and I was able to get my bottle of Purell through security without a fuss so sanitize after ever new activity wasn’t an issue. The plane was about 60% full. Middle seats weren’t sold except to family groups traveling together, people stayed masked and there was minimal traffic in the aisles. I wedged myself in my seat per usual, put on a movie, promptly fell asleep, and woke up somewhere over Nebraska in time for a bottle of water, some cheez-its and some cookies in a baggie which was all the food and beverage service. More movies, which did not put me to sleep this time, and a lovely view of Mount Rainier as we flew past and I was descending into Sea-Tac airport. Again, universal masking, a quick trip through baggage claim and off to meet my brother who was picking me up.

My biggest take away from the whole experience is how we have to do a whole new set of risk benefit calculations with everyday activity that we just aren’t used to and for which we are operating off of imperfect data. We’ve all been very used to doing this around life since we were children. Busy street? Wait for the light and the corner or, as there’s no one coming, jaywalk to cut a couple minutes off of time. Dark underpass at a late hour? Not a problem – I’m with three friends. We don’t even think much about those calculations, especially if we’re white males. We’ve been acculturated to them over decades of life experience and we don’t even think about them most of the time. Now we have a whole new set of risks to think about in a pandemic world and little conventional wisdom on which to fall back. Am I far enough away from that person in this elevator? Is the need for my being able to interact with my family worth the risk of this plane flight? Can I hold it long enough not to need to use this public restroom? We’ll get better at making these calculations with time and additional data points.

The same thing is going on at a macro level with society. Is the need to educate and socialize our children worth the risk of opening up public schools in the usual model? Can we accomplish the same sorts of business or academic productivity without commuting into offices daily? Is it safe to stand in line with strangers? Is it safe to go indoors with them in large groups? If not now, when? What needs to happen to restore public confidence in these sorts of activities? The criminal neglect of these basic questions evidenced by the lack of interest by current federal and state administrations is why we remain mired in a sort of stasis. We’re holding at a crossroads: either we allow the virus to spread unchecked and accept the consequences in excess mortality and morbidity (although what that latter is remains pretty much unknown) or we get serious about bringing it under control in the way most of the rest of the world has done. To do that, we will need a real lockdown – no travel, no leaving your domicile other than medial emergency or a once a week run for groceries monitored by the authorities, an enforced curfew and quarantine, and prohibition of gatherings, mandatory masking, a robust testing system, and contact tracing until we can thoroughly identify and isolate carriers. It’s going to be a politically hard sell but that’s what works. I didn’t make the rules. It’s just how viral pandemics work and how you can beat them. I’m afraid we’re going to be stuck in stasis until we make up our societal minds about which way we really want to go. Neither choice is pleasant. The virus doesn’t care.

In the meantime, wash your hands, wear your mask, maintain social distancing (which I am doing as much as I can, even with members of my family).

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