Apart from spending time with family and friends, travel writers’ lives largely revolve around traveling and writing—and so did mine. But here’s why this travel writer is not traveling right now.
An unusual year begins, as usual
In January, 2020, my husband and I traveled from New York to Los Angeles for a media event followed by a visit to family in Ventura County, California. In February, we participated in a Guinness World Records vow renewal ceremony on Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess sailing in the Caribbean. Later that month, we traveled to an international food conference in Pamplona, Spain and then headed off to explore Basque Country in Northern Spain.
When we returned home to New York from Europe on February 19th, we were somewhat concerned about the increasing number of COVID cases that were cropping up in Europe and China. So we were happy to arrive home for what we thought might be a few weeks until our next trip, a river cruise in Europe in April.
The world changed in a heartbeat
Since the beginning of March, we have been sequestered at home, getting groceries delivered. The only “trips” we’ve taken have been masked walks for exercise and fresh air close to home. All our travel has become armchair or virtual—with photographs, books and recipes eliciting wonderful memories of all the life-changing opportunities we’ve been privileged to experience.
Why are we cloistered? We’re members of an age group (over 65) at higher-risk for COVID because immune systems weaken with age.
It’s also a matter of geography. We live in New York State, which reported its first case of the virus on March 1st. (By July 1st, New York would have the largest number of recorded COVID cases of any state in the U.S.) On March 7th, the governor declared a state of emergency because of the rapidly escalating number of cases in the state.
A recent article in The New York Times by Paula Span (You’re a senior: How do you calculate coronavirus risk right now? 7/19/20) cites an MIT economist’s speculation that, in the absence of a vaccine or effective treatments, to stay safe, people over the age of 65 might need to stay locked down for as long as 18 months.
At one point, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cautioned that cruising, one of our favorite ways to travel, might be totally off-limits to our age cohort.
Reasons why this travel writer is not traveling
Since the shutdown, we’ve continued to weigh the risks and benefits of travel, wondering if and when, we’ll travel again. Here are some of the reasons that give us pause:
1 – No vaccine or effective treatments
Coronavirus is still spreading rapidly in many parts of the world and even scientists can’t predict when it will abate. At present, there is no vaccine to prevent the infection, and only a limited number of treatments of limited effectiveness should someone become infected.
The political rhetoric of science making progress at “warp speed” isn’t reassuring either. To assure both safety and efficacy, clinical trials require time and oversight.
2 – Border closures and restrictions
Our U.S. passport has been devalued. Many places we would like to visit are understandably closed off to Americans, a country where infection rates are soaring. For example, although we are pining to visit Sicily, EU borders are closed to travelers outside the Schengen zone.
Even when someone makes plans to visit a destination, they may later find out that borders are closed, as happened when the Bahamas suddenly closed off airports and seaports to U.S. citizens (based on increasing infections in the states). Quarantine requirements also can be imposed unexpectedly.
3 – Severely limited cruise options
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently extended the no-sail order affecting the cruise industry through September 30, noting that the lines haven’t been able to assure regulators that they are able to ensure the health and safety of passengers and crew.
4 – Hotels aren’t the same
Hotels are making Herculean efforts to protect the health and safety of their guests but doing so seems to compromise the very concept of hospitality—at least to some extent. We came to take for granted some of the special joys, perks and amenities of hotels that we now will miss—from sumptuous (often free) breakfast buffets to stocked minibars, to hotel gyms, to the personal service that often included face-to-face contact with servers and members of the hotel reception team.
Now, it seems wise to skip the indulgence of twice-a-day housekeeping in order to minimize contact with strangers. Closed dining rooms, limited seating capacities, and adherence to social distancing requirements at hotels make it harder to arrange meals on site. Off-site options may even be more limited. Although elevators are convenient, it may be safer to take the stairs.
Many hotels have developed brand partnerships with health entities to assure guests of their health and safety but all these assurances are subject to implementation and oversight, which may be lacking given the cutbacks faced by the industry.
5 – Fear of flying
Depending on the carrier, passengers may find themselves sitting next to someone who is coughing and refuses to wear a mask. At first, all the airlines were blocking off middle seats. Now, as more travelers are flying, that isn’t the case across the board. And if the air ventilation systems on airplanes are so effective, why do I get a cold each time I fly?
NPR reports that there are no federal mandates for masks or blocked middle seats. The same article quotes Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation Committee: “There’s very few, I think, worse environments to be in than trapped in a tube that’s crammed full of people who are rubbing shoulders with recirculated air for five or six hours while flying across the country.”
6 – Skepticism of airports
Well, even before someone gets on a plane, they have to get to and through an airport, including TSA security screening. Some airports still remain closed. Need to get a bite to eat before you board that plane with no meal service? Some airport concessions aren’t open either.
TSA has announced the implementation of new airport security measures but The Washington Post recently reported that the rollout has been uneven with more than 1000 consumer-facing TSA employees testing positive for the virus. Spending time at airports also risks passengers brushing up against each other, not knowing who may be an asymptomatic carrier.
7- Reluctance to take road trips
Many experts say that road trips are “the way to go” because they allow travelers more control over their environment. And admittedly, gas prices are low. But while road trips offer some appeal to travel-wary travelers like me, even an ordinary road trip entails so much more research, planning and preparation than it did in the past (e.g. finding safe hotels/accommodations, open restaurants, and identifying public restrooms that are clean and open.
In a sense, packing “extras” like wipes, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and masks, reminds me of the hassle of getting paraphernalia ready to travel with a toddler. Experts suggest that travelers handle their own luggage and belongings once they arrive at a destination to help reduce the risk of exposure.
Road trips frequently entail stops at attractions, such as museums and visitors’ centers at state parks, which may be closed or operating with restricted hours.
8 – Worries about cancellations
Because the public health situation is so fluid, the best laid plans may go awry. If infection rates soar in a particular community, previously made hotel or restaurant reservations may be cancelled. Similarly, air and train schedule cancellations have become far more commonplace than before.
At this time, before embarking on a trip by land, air or sea, it’s prudent for travelers to stay abreast of fluctuations in COVID-19 infection rates, using resources like the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Tracker. Based on what they find out, they may be the ones who decide to change plans at the last-minute.
9 – Living in a state of high anxiety
Of course, everyone has their own comfort zone and some people are more risk-averse than others (count me amongst the former). Worrying about safety precautions all the time (keeping my mask on, watching whether others are wearing theirs, frequent hand washing and maintaining social distance)—while totally necessary from a public health perspective—detract from feeling relaxed, open to experiences, and connected, feelings I have come to cherish when traveling.
I’m the type who is even likely to worry about being at a distance from my health care providers and not knowing the health resources of a community should I get sick.
If I’m wired to worry, should I really be traveling? Although I have no symptoms now, I also worry about the ethics of unknowingly carrying the virus to other people in other places—or bringing it home with me to friends or family.
The bottom line: Why this travel writer is not traveling
We are fortunate to enjoy our life in our downsized home, with a small deck overlooking the treetops, that’s filled with stimulating things to do. We have each other for conversation and company, and never seem to get bored of that. With a Kindle, wide-screen TV and computer, the world of literature and movies is at our fingertips, bringing forth images of all the places we’ve been and those where we’d still like to travel.
One of the most vexing aspects of this pandemic is the inability to plan for the future. So this travel writer is not traveling right now, for the time being. Instead, we are sitting back, adopting a wait-and-see approach, ever hopeful that the world of travel will feel open to us again.
What are your thoughts about traveling right now?
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