Traveling in a global pandemic

Deb Hill Managing Editor
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
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“Now boarding all seats, all passengers, for Delta flight 1010 to Salt Lake City,” the boarding agent announces, addressing the group of us gathered near the gate.

Don and I shuffle forward slowly, staying toward the back of the group, cautiously eyeing the other passengers. Did that guy just cough? That woman looks tired, maybe ill. We overhear two sunburned, college-age women in shorts tell the gate agent they just returned from spring break in Mexico. We move further back, social distancing from foolish young people.

We are part of a small group of travelers who are happily allowing the other passengers to go first. Younger travelers stride down the concourse, seemingly oblivious to danger. Older folks loiter, unwilling to make contact.

We adjust our masks and make sure our disinfecting wipes are accessible. Then, with trepidation, we take our place in line, moving toward the enforced confinement of a regional jet that might be carrying COVID-19.

We are on the last leg home from a week in Maui, planned and paid for ages ago. When we left, it seemed like a reasonable risk, given that neither Montana nor Maui had any COVID-19 cases. All we had to do, we assured each other, was get through the airports and plane rides.

By the time we returned, of course, the situation was much different.

Still, we tried to be vigilant throughout.

We wore facemasks (which, while not perfect, are at least a small physical barrier to other people’s coughs and sneezes) in all airports and on all flights. We were not alone – most of the airport and airline employees were wearing masks, along with maybe 10% of travelers.

Before sitting down or touching anything, we used sanitizing wipes to clean armrests, seat belt clasps, tray tables inside and out, seatback pockets and anything else we thought we might touch.

We were not alone in this either – so many travelers are doing it, the flight attendants have added a plea to their litany of safety instructions, asking travelers not to leave used wipes in the seatback pockets.

We wore latex gloves to accept things from others, and employed wipes and hand sanitizers on touch screens, and to clean credit cards and drivers licenses if someone else had handled them.

Once in Hawaii, our concerns lessened a bit. Maui is, of course, fabulous this time of year. We left Lewistown in a blizzard and arrived on the island to be greeted by warm sun, brilliantly hued flowers and tropical beaches. We whale-watched, bird watched, hiked, beach walked and snorkeled.

Our second day on the island, the governor of Hawaii ordered all bars and restaurants closed. Luckily we had a room with a kitchen, so aside from having to eat our own less-than-gourmet cooking, we were in good shape and saved a bundle on expensive restaurant meals.

But each day, everything we did was overlain with a filter of dread. Is it ok if the grocery checkers have touched your food – can you still eat it? Is the rental car company disinfecting well enough or should we do more? How long do you need to leave alcohol-based hand sanitizer on a snorkel mouthpiece to be sure it’s clean enough to go in your mouth?

When you need to consider whether doing something will kill you, it puts a different context on typical vacation activities.

As we prepared to board our flight home from Oakland, California, the terminal was deserted, a ghost port with just the 20 or so of us headed to Salt Lake City huddled at the only operating gate. With all the airport businesses closed, locked and dark, the area looked as grim as we felt.

The sense of relief on landing in Billings was surprising, even though we knew everything here changed for the worse over the week we were gone. However, the stress of travel at this time is hard to put into words, perhaps followed only by the stress of two weeks of self-quarantine. Were our efforts enough? Only time will tell.


Do you think the coronavirus will spread into Central Montana?