Here Y.A. regular contributor Monet shares her perspective of travel during the COVID19 pandemic. Stuck in Greenland when things went belly up, here’s what happened when she eventually had to travel home to the U.S.
When the epidemic became a pandemic, I was bumping along on a dogsled in subzero temperatures, far from anything resembling cell service.
When I crashed landed back to reality, the world was in chaos.
My home country, the U.S., was floundering. The news was changing so fast. It seemed possible that in three days, airports might be closed forever. I chose the safe option: stay put in Greenland until further notice.
As the months went by, it became apparent that nothing was getting better. It eventually became clear that we were entering a sort of New Normal. With more safety protocols in place, granted some more efficiently in some areas than others, I could see things changing. People now wear masks and withhold hugs. The world adapted, rather than purely reacting.
I needed to reassess my decision to stay in Greenland.
With people able to congregate outdoors, it seemed that numbers were going down (“seemed” being the operative word). The longer I stayed outside the U.S., the higher the risk another wave would begin, and I would lose my chance to travel home.
Plus, I was insanely homesick. A three-week trip had turned into four months. My mental health was taking a deep dive, making a living abroad during a global health crisis into my ver own hell. So as I waited for a visa extension that may never have arrived, I decided to jump while I had the chance.
As I arranged my journey home, I remembered why I had decided to stay put in the first place. I was living in a small town in South Greenland. It would take me five flights, four days, and one boat ride to get back to my home airport in Massachusetts.
By the time I began my first leg of the journey (a boat taxi through the iceberg-dotted fjords), I’d heard rumors from both ends of the spectrum.
Make sure to arrive 3 hours early, the airports are packed.
The terminal is a ghost town, no one is traveling.
Airlines are enforcing strict rules.
The planes are fully booked and no one is wearing masks.
Greenland had responded to the virus aggressively to protect the country’s fragile healthcare system. By the time I left the country, life was business-as-usual for several months. COVID19 in Greenland was tiny.
No one was wearing masks. Social distancing was a thing of the past.
In many ways, it was hard to imagine what the rest of the world was enduring when things seemed almost normal here.
In the capital, when I switched to the international terminal, the transformation was akin to culture shock. Whereas the domestic terminal had no obvious restrictions, suddenly, hazard tape covered seats to encourage distancing. Travel during the COVID19 pandemic was different.
I felt like a fumbling newborn lamb as I put on my mask for the first time, hopscotching through the terminal to keep space between myself and the other passengers.
When we touched down in Copenhagen, we left row-by-row––and not to stand until the row in front of us had left. All but a few listened to this request.
Inside, the airport was empty, with no one around. Except for a couple of cafes, all shops were closed. Half-squeezed hand sanitizer bottles were attached to poles with yellow hazard tape. Signs with cute graphics encouraged social distancing and hand washing. Airport employees stationed at entrances enforced mask-wearing rules.
I made my way to the hotel airport, where I would spend the night, and was surprised to realize that I was the only person wearing a mask at the check-in line. While the airport was enforcing strict rules, as soon as people stepped out of the sliding doors they ditched their masks.
The next morning, I walked through the echoing airport halls for my third day of pandemic travel.
Security lines were non-existent. My British Airways flight to Heathrow was less than half full. We were boarded back to front to lessen potential contact and given hygiene packs filled with hand sanitizer and wipes. There was no in-flight service.
At Heathrow, the flight attendants tried to enforce row-by-row off-boarding but still struggled to get passengers to comply. Travel during the COVID19 pandemic varied place to place.
In Heathrow, some of the stores had notes of encouragement taped to their shuttered doors. Travelers made their own private spaces in the roped-off food courts and dining areas. It appeared that Starbucks, which was not open, had tried to prevent this by blocking off their seating area, but to no avail.
It seemed like a last-ditch petty effort to try to keep people from their empty tables, and many travelers (including myself) walked around the barriers to find a seat away from others.
There weren’t many people on my last and final leg to Boston. By this point, I knew the drill. I had bought enough food at the airport to sustain me for the flight and turned my row into my private oasis of self-sufficiency.
The airplane had become nothing more than a shuttle from point A to B, an experience I was trying to get through with as little human contact as possible.
Flight attendants did hand out a health form required by the U.S. government. I wrote down my contact information and checked that yes, I had recently spent time in Denmark, one of the countries singled out on the sheet as being high risk.
When we disembarked, we filed past several fold-out tables staffed by health workers. They asked me how I was feeling as I handed over my health form. Staff offered me a form encouraging self-quarantine before sending me on my merry way.
No one took my temperature nor asked me any questions.
Once back at my house, I self-isolated for the required two weeks. No one from the airport or health department followed up with me either.
My main takeaway from flying during the pandemic is to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible. The airline crew needs to have as little contact with you as possible. Bring your food, drinks, headphones, and blanket/pillow.
You’ll have to do due diligence on your end to ensure the airline is enforcing masks and social distancing on the plane. Decide beforehand what you will feel comfortable with (will you sit next to a stranger? Will you accept food from the flight attendants?) and speak up if you feel crowded or unsafe.
I do believe that travel can be done safely right now. But it takes time, patience, and planning.
What do you think about travel during the COVID19 pandemic? Have any experience with this? Share!