Crowds, Masks & Seatmates
I consider myself a calm, seasoned, well-prepared traveler. I have flown over a hundred times in my six-plus decades on the planet, including trips to South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, Mexico and various European countries when I served as Director of International Programs for a nonprofit educational association.
Moderate turbulence, crying babies, seat-mates who take shoes off or chew with mouth open, cackling gaggles of vacation revelers – none of it ruffles me much if I have a good book and my iPod.
Until air travel in the era of COVID-19.
If you are contemplating a flight in the next few weeks, steel yourself for a stressful day. Despite airports’ strenuous cleaning protocols and abundant hand-sanitizing stations, the cavalier attitude of some fellow travelers poses the greatest hazard.
On June 9, 2020, I flew from Southwest Florida Regional Airport (RSW) to Toronto via Charlotte, NC, with a 6:15 a.m. departure from RSW and a five-hour layover. I carried disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and three types of face masks, prepared to keep away from others. If only that had been possible.
After social distancing, obsessive hand washing and household isolation over the past three months, suddenly I was one fish in a flood of airport travelers whose concepts of mask-wearing and physical distance ranged from scrupulous to oblivious to obnoxious. I felt anxious, even paranoid during the 14-hour travel day that started with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.
My daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons live in the west end of Toronto, where I have spent much of summer for the past ten years. This year, after months isolated at home, my daughter and her husband need physical and mental space to work while the boys spend time with Grandma. I’m delighted to help out.
As a citizen of both the United States (fourth-generation Chicagoan) and Canada – where I lived for 16 years after my 1987 marriage to a Canadian – I can normally cross the border in either direction easily. While that border is currently closed to non-essential travel, citizens are allowed to enter Canada and then must self-quarantine for 14 days.
So, with trepidation, I prepared to fly in the face of the pandemic for a journey of indeterminate length, leaving behind my Fort Myers Beach home and my beloved companion, Martin.
Mask up, people!
American Airlines repeatedly announced its policy that all travelers must wear a mask in the boarding area and on the plane, “unless they have a condition that prevents it.” On the Fort Myers to Charlotte trip, one flight attendant was bare-faced. “I have a condition that doesn’t allow me to wear a mask,” he told a nearby passenger. “Besides, I’ve already had the COVID.”
Landing at 8 a.m. flung us into busy Charlotte airport, one of American Airlines’ hubs. Consolidation of flight schedules means several flights disgorge or board passengers within a short time frame.
After wearing a cloth mask on the first flight, I switched to an N-95 mask in the airport. It felt tight and a bit smothering but also reassuringly dense. During the entire travel day I was on unaccustomed high alert for encroachment into my space.
Hundreds of travelers streamed through the concourse. Some nearly collided, absorbed in their phones. A dozen people stood in line at the Chick-Fil-A counter and as many waited in front of Burger King. At eight o’clock in the morning.
About 80 percent of the bustling travelers wore a face covering of some type, mostly blue paper surgical masks but also bandanas, cloth masks and N-95’s. A scant few sported plastic face shields. I saw one full-body paper coverall, and one transparent plastic poncho.
Of those with a face covering, 20 percent wore it sloppily. Nose uncovered, dangling around the neck, hanging off one ear. People with no mask at all were of every age and demographic; most appeared to be under age 50.
To escape the crowded flow I parked myself in one of Charlotte airport’s pleasant white rocking chairs, spaced well apart. People hurried past but it felt less threatening than being in the stream. By ten o’clock the throngs diminished to a trickle for a couple of hours before ramping up again.
In the lounge and on the plane
An hour before the flight to Toronto boarded I went to the gate, choosing a seat at the far end of a row. A woman wearing gloves and a paper mask that hung below her nose cleaned the back, seat and armrests on every unoccupied chair and swept the floor twice during that hour, whistling cheerful tunes. A half-full flight meant every other seat in the lounge stayed empty.
I used airline points to travel Business Class on both my flights. I hoped being at the front of the plane would mean exposure to fewer people. Naïvely assuming travelers in Business were classier than the average, I didn’t count on a boorish seat mate.
A tall man in his 60’s plopped into the aisle seat beside me, paper mask hanging under his chin. I faced away from him, but he kept leaning between our seats to talk to a friend seated in the row behind. I huddled against the window behind my N-95 mask for the 100-minute flight.
The airline had announced there would be no food or beverage service, but attendants did offer beverages with ice in our section. They served, then disappeared from view until just prior to landing.
In the final half-hour my seat mate turned to me and unleashed a monologue about a stroke he suffered two years ago that ravaged his short-term memory (and, apparently, his verbal filter), the wife who left him, and his view that “this whole COVID thing is way overblown. If they think I’ll sit at home in Toronto for two weeks, they’re nuts. I’ll be out on my bike on the Lake Ontario waterfront by Friday.”
It was a great relief to exit the plane, and his presence, when we landed on schedule.
Welcome to Canada
On arrival at Toronto Pearson Airport, we received a paper form to complete detailing our destination for the next two weeks. A separate sheet for us to take home spelled out quarantine requirements: No stopping between airport and destination. No travel by transit. Do not leave your property. No visitors. Take your temperature daily and report any symptoms to a doctor immediately.
Between collecting luggage, using the electronic Customs and Immigration kiosk and juggling paper forms, there was no time to sanitize hands. But the entry hall, normally jammed, was sparsely populated and within five minutes I stood before a Customs officer whose smile shone in her eyes above the mask.
“Welcome back to Canada,” she said before asking how long I had been away. She reassured: “It’s so much better now. Things are opening up slowly, the weather is nice. It feels very different than three months ago.”
After a 20-minute taxi ride I opened the door to the rental apartment my daughter had stocked with food and drinks to see me through the first couple of days. She had left a drawing by my older grandson, instructions on how to order groceries by Instacart, and meal delivery options (restaurants in Toronto are open only for takeout and delivery).
Within the hour, my family stood at the foot of the driveway, waved and yelled a welcome. The sight and sound of them made every moment of travel anxiety and stress worthwhile.
We all have to weigh risk against reward when it comes to travel during a pandemic. On day seven of my quarantine, I feel well (touch wood) and enjoy daily fresh air in the backyard. The strange first days of enforced solitude have transformed into serene retreat, and electronic devices keep me in contact with loved ones.
If you lack a compelling reason such as mine to take to the air, this is not your moment. On the other hand, flights may get busier as more people venture out. Certainly wear an N-95 mask if you fly, take all other precautions – and then hope for the best. We are all navigating the unknown together.
A personal note: It has been an honor and a pleasure to write a history column and occasional articles for the Island Sand Paper over the past ten years. This newspaper, an authentic voice for Fort Myers Beach, has kept readers informed, entertained and enlightened about local issues with honesty and sharp insight. Its closing will leave a void that I fervently hope some visionary “angel” will step in to fill. Fort Myers Beach needs its Sand Paper! Thank you for ten wonderful years, Missy, Bob and Sand Paper staff.
by Janet Sailian