June 10, 2020.
What I witnessed along the way during my recent four-day, 2,200-mile road trip Raleigh to Iowa and back, and what I observed at three airports and on four long flights Raleigh to and from Billings, Montana, left me conflicted about traveling again so soon in this vaccine-less period of the novel coronavirus. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I went; I shoulder personal risk responsibility for deciding to make the trips, risks I thought were balanced by the need and want to go.
Now that the journeys are behind me, and admittedly based entirely on my personal experiences, I’m not so sure the risk-reward ratio was favorable. I am frankly surprised at my own angst reflecting on my choice to go.
Who knows what is the right choice? The coronavirus threat, due to the nature of its stealthy asymptomatic spread, makes my risk perception existential and hard to process. Is my desire to return to pre-CV19 normalcy so strong that I, perhaps like many Americans, am interpreting the risks subjectively, and thus inaccurately? If I and many fellow citizens are operating in a fantasy of denial, then it’s going to be very, very ugly for me and for all of us if we travel and mingle too soon. That’s my worry.
Heightened risk was concerning even on the road trip. Every time I grabbed a gas pump handle, pushed my credit card into a reader, shoved a gas station door handle, or entered a rest stop toilet, I wondered who had touched what before me. I tried to use disposable gloves and wipes and such, but it’s literally impossible not to come in contact with multiple surfaces. Even using the squeegees to clean my windshield made me uneasy.
The same apprehension accompanied overnight hotel stays. I hoped the housekeeping staff had not been sick and had thoroughly cleaned rooms between guests. But I had no firm proof of either.
Experts on CV19 advise avoiding the “three C’s” – closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact situations like up-close conversations. Yet that’s the very definition of air travel, and all four of my planes were full to the last seat. Too, all three airports (RDU, DFW, and BIL) were crowded—not necessarily everywhere, but we were definitely packed in as usual at the gates being used for the few flights being operated. And all of us routinely, unavoidably brushing up against strangers frontwards, backwards, and side-to-side when boarding and deplaning.
It felt unsafe to be packed into full flights as if nothing was wrong, wearing only a flimsy mask. Though masks are a proven deterrent to spreading the virus (Spain has already made mask-wearing mandatory pending a vaccine), sitting in such close proximity to one another on flights with only a mask is unlikely to protect me absolutely from the virus.
In hindsight, I think using the airplane lavatories greatly heightened the risk of contracting the disease. The mask wasn’t much protection in that tiny and cramped space. No amount of hand washing and careful use of paper towels to touch door latches and other surfaces voided the risk of coronavirus spread via shared airplane toilet use.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not averring that airports and flights are back to normal. Statistics indicate air traffic in April of 2020 was 96% below April, 2019. Even now (June, 2020) I realize that airlines are running half or less of their pre-coronavirus schedules, with average load factors of around 40-50%. Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have pledged to keep some seats empty to promote on-board social distancing as well.
But it’s the full flights on other airlines, including American and United, that give me pause.
And not even Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have a risk-reduction strategy for common lavatory use. Nor do data exist to support the degree of safety of keeping center seats empty.
When 511 epidemiologists were asked by the New York Times when they expect to fly again, only one in five felt confident about traveling by air this summer (expressed in percentages):
|THIS SUMMER||3 TO 12 MOS.||1 YR.+||NEVER AGAIN|
|Travel by airplane||20||44||37||<1|
A separate NYT article, in attempting to answer the question, Is it safe to fly again?, reported uncertain conclusions, such as “none of [what airlines are doing to reduce risk] is consistent. And it’s unclear whether the measures are enough.” Former American Airlines CEO tough guy Bob Crandall didn’t mince words. He called the suggestion that onboard infection is unlikely “nonsense, since atmospheric inhalation is the primary means of transmission.”
Not reassuring, any of it.
Except for a week on the ocean in a private beach house that’s an easy two-hour drive from Raleigh, I do not have any further travel plans by air or road on my calendar. Period. That’s a lifetime first for me. I’m always on the go.
But cases are rising in the USA. Given the uncertainties and the eye-opening experiences on my recent two trips, the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus while traveling feels too high.
There it is: the unknown, the existential monster in the closet fighting with my will to do what I want to do. I suspect that many of my fellow Americans are fighting the same internal battle to either accept the harsh facts in the scientific data or to throw caution to the wind and pretend everything is like it used to be.
As Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141): ”The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Survival is a personal choice, and I’ve made mine: I’m staying home for now.