In the early days of March, before the coronavirus became the only news, I boarded a plane in Burbank, California, bound for New York City. It was the day of the Los Angeles Marathon, when considerable attention was already being paid to the looming health crisis, but in a low-key way. Marathon participants were advised to take “precautions as minor as not shaking hands with other athletes.”
On the flight home, I sat in a middle seat between my husband and a woman who was wiping her seat and tray table like it was a crime scene. We chuckled at her thoroughness.
Three weeks later, I had to fly again, and I tried hard to remember that woman’s every wipe and imitate it.
As soon as I arrived in New York from California in early March, the dominoes quickly fell. But even then, it still felt like the panic was unwarranted. Schools closed in Connecticut and New York, freeing up time to dress-shop for my daughter's upcoming prom. Days later, retail stores shuttered and the ban on gatherings of 10 or more was established.
Sheltering in place seemed like a drag in a city as packed as New York. Many friends opted to shelter in places where there were back yards, and biking trails, or outdoor grills where hunkering down had some perks—maybe even a swimming pool or trampoline. Those who could leave, did.
Airline and hotel prices plummeted, so my husband and I considered vacationing our way through self-isolation. Then hotels closed. How idiotic would we be to fly somewhere only to land at the threshold of a closed hotel. How inconsequential COVID-19 felt, how thoroughly inflammatory this sky-is-falling news seemed. Little did I know my children had already been exposed to the virus by their father and stepmother who got sick around March 10 and were among the first to be tested. Their positive results came back March 23—well after I’d spent time within sneezing, spitting, and talking distance of them.
The incessant uptick in numbers made going outside feel lethal, so we didn’t. We stayed inside in our one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment for the next three weeks, going out only for essentials. My husband remained employed. I was furloughed. I echo a lot of people when I say it was nice at first. Ordering GrubHub, having nothing but time to snuggle. I don’t remember the day when the world suddenly felt dangerous, but New York City was empty like no one had ever seen and people we knew were getting sick. The realization that this experience would last indefinitely hit, silences became longer and more frequent. We turned inward with our own fears and checked on our respective friends and family through email, text, and social media.
By early April, three weeks into isolation, I was barely leaving the house, let alone considering boarding a plane to do anything no matter what. I stayed put and washed my hands. My husband did the dangerous essential shopping, and if I went anywhere, it was via my own car to Connecticut for the briefest visits with my kids at a distance that ensured whatever remained of the virus where they were quarantined did not penetrate my imaginary bubble, a Subaru.
Unfortunately, global pandemics do not end other extreme illness and family emergencies. Without notice, I had to attend to a family emergency that required me to fly the first week of April. I felt the risks with my entire being. Even in the confines of my building elevator, I felt exposed. The idea of walking into an airport felt like huffing a paper bag filled with virus. I was masked and sanitized, and when I entered, it was desolate in the same way Times Square is—in a way that isn't supposed to be. It was another visual clue reminding me that there is something terribly wrong in the world and I could very well be walking into death.
Nobody knows anything, and that’s the scariest part. Who is asymptomatic? If we have antibodies, are we immune? Why are young, healthy asymptomatic people having strokes? If the elderly and those with underlying health issues are most at risk, why are otherwise healthy fit people in their thirties and forties dying on ventilators? Tracking the daily mutations and new symptoms affecting younger and younger populations felt like more bullets to dodge, and with weeks of horror stories, dodging them felt futile. So, yeah, the emergency was damn big and personal for me to take to the skies.
At 6 a.m., JFK was spotless, and when the workers finished sanitizing an area, they went back to where they started. With very few people traveling, the airport felt safer than any essential grocery store in Brooklyn. Social distancing was moot. There were no lines. I paid attention to everything I touched, from credit cards and ID to the bins at security. I didn’t touch my face and the second I reached the first bathroom, I washed my hands and then made a pitstop into every bathroom I saw on the way to my gate, where only about 15 people waited while I sat with my hands stuffed in my pockets and watched the sunrise.
My first flight was on Delta. Prior to boarding, there was an announcement that there would be limited service on the flight and that we could get coffee at one of two places open in the terminal. I opted out. The last thing I wanted to do was use the bathroom on the plane in the early days of air travel before masks were mandatory. All 15 passengers wore masks. Each of us had a row to ourselves. The back of the plane boarded first. Before remaining sections of the plane were allowed down the jetway, all passengers had to be seated with their luggage stowed. No milling about, at all. We were given alcohol wipes to wash the areas we might touch—seatbelts, seat recline button, arm rests, tray tables, entertainment screens. But, it was clear the plane had undergone a complete wash prior to our arrival. It was the first flight that day, so as clean as it would be. Our bottled water, Cheez Its, biscotti, and another wipe were in a clear plastic drawstring bag that a gloved flight attendant kind of dropped into our hands to avoid contact. As the flight attendants moved through the cabin prior to takeoff, we were tossed sealed packets with headphones.
There was no thrill of going somewhere fun. Flying was a somber occasion that required us to stay put. COVID-19 had silently hijacked travel, and we all obeyed the rules. It took four Delta flights to get to two cities I needed to visit, and each leg was exactly the same: board back-to-front, receive a sack of treats, sit alone in a row, wipe everything down, watch a movie with prepackaged headphones.
Returning to New York was a whole ’nother story. I had been away for a month, missed my kids and husband immeasurably, and after two 14-day stints of self-quarantine in Austin and Portland, Oregon, I was ready to be home.
This time, I flew United into Newark with a layover in Denver. Again, it was the earliest flight. But now, even though masks were mandatory, almost nobody had one. United employees handed them out as people boarded. The back-to-front method was the same as Delta, but there was a clog at the entrance of the plane while people got situated in the rows ahead. No bag of treats. All rows were full.
A child across the aisle from me was not wearing a mask and played on the floor while screaming, “Are we there?” in a frequency so high that it was hard to believe the kid was male.
One passenger asked about social distancing and wondered why the middle seats were full and the plane was at capacity. “We’re doing our best,” the flight attendant said. “If people buy the seats, the plane is going to be full.” Seems like old times, I thought. Not in a good way.
We were not handed sanitary towelettes. Instead, the woman next to me handed me Clorox wipes at various intervals throughout the flight from Denver to Newark. Fortunately, she brought a dog and paid for the middle seat, so only a little bag carrying a dachshund sat on the floor between us.
Inflight entertainment required downloading the United app prior to boarding, and nothing I played on my personal device worked, because I didn't have the requisite plug-in. Instead, I watched people. I saw one woman lift her mask to sneeze. By the end of the flight, masks were resting on chins. All of our grimy fingers sifted through a basket of snacks the flight attendant held out to us. The beverage cart hurtled down the aisle banging elbows and ankles same as ever. Tea and coffee were off-limits, but we could otherwise have whatever we wanted poured into a plastic cup and handed to us.
Sure, Delta was a sobering ride, but it seemed safe, certainly in contrast to United, which did little in the way of precautions that would actually slow or stop the spread of the virus. I looked at the gray woven seatbelt straps and thought about all the trapped pathogens. My flight home was packed with people flying to the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, but a grocery store in Brooklyn was definitely less risky than a packed flight on United.
Maybe other United flights are safer. I only know what I experienced on my flight. What I do know is that safety precautions are not uniform throughout the airline industry. A journalist friend of mine also flew in April and found the same variable level of service from airline to airline. Jet Blue, he said, was reassuring; they didn’t allow middle seats to be booked, and you boarded back to front. But American kept its old boarding process designed to make you pay more, its planes were full, and so was its terminal at Charlotte.