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Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

Barcelona. Photo by Michael Kiefer.

By Michael Kiefer

To go or not to go, that was the question.

We had pooled our frequent flyer miles and scheduled a trip to Barcelona for our March break.

“Aquí todo el mundo hace vida normal,” a friend who lives there texted. “Everyone here is living a normal life.”

My friends in Umbria, Italy, a couple of hours from Milan, farther from Venice, said “Tutto bene,” like no big deal, even if there the coronavirus was stewing in Milan and Venice. (We know how that went.)

The university where I teach and the corporation that my significant other works for had issued edicts that anyone who traveled to China or Italy or Iran or other hot spots, would face a mandatory two-week time out when they returned.  Spain was not on the list. There were way fewer cases in Spain than in the US.

“Might be a good place to hide out,” a doctor friend told me.

The airlines said not to worry.

So we nervously decided to go ahead.

The night before we left, on TV, I saw a news correspondent at a domestic airport, wearing a heavy-duty, industrial face mask, saying there was no one in the airport.  That was totally contrary to what I saw when my flight from Phoenix dropped us at Chicago O’Hare for a connection.  The airport was as busy as ever. And the only people wearing surgical masks were Asian tourists and American college students.  Some of the younger Asian travelers had festooned their masks with cartoony shark teeth and snarling dog muzzles, meant to be ironic, but at this point, the irony had pushed well into not-funny territory.

Chicago to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Barcelona, same story.  We swabbed our seats and trays with antibacterial wipes, washed our hands like an OCD copy editor, and when we got to  Barcelona, yes, it was normal life, just as if everyone had good sense.

I turned on the BBC, looking for news and instead saw a panel of journalists: a Brit, an Indian, a Russian, and an American (though what kind of American says “amongst,” honestly?).

In their estimation, the supposed crisis was just a thing of politicians trying to deflect attention from other problems.

“Now the government is telling us to wash our hands,” the Russian said smugly.  “Why wash hands? It is spread in the air.”

The British host very quickly cut in.

“Well, we don’t want to discourage people from washing hands!” he said. “Certainly not!”

Back in Barcelona, there was a long line to get into the Sagrada Familia cathedral, even with reservations.  The beaches were crowded, the parks were full. People strolled La Rambla and packed into the big markets.  The restaurants were also full — no tables without reservations. The tapas were savory, the wine was rich, the townspeople were engaging and talkative and oblivious to coronavirus.  It was a great several days in Spain. Vida normal.

Still, we were careful: wet wipes, hand washes, quick U-turns when we saw face-masked tour groups.

Then it started to change.  I turned on Spanish TV news and saw the minister of health announcing that schools would be closed in Madrid.  We booked an earlier flight home, one that went through London instead of Madrid.  That seemed safer.

The buzz had started.  We went to a wine shop in the Born district of the city.  The owner, an elderly woman, launched into conversation ranging from the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 — informing me that it really started in Marseilles and not Spain — to the two elementary schools in town that had closed.

“The authorities?  All they care about is tourism!”she said.

She wasn’t done.

“There was an 80-year-old man in Sevilla, a farmer all his life, who took ill and went to the doctor,” she said dramatically.  “He had the virus.  ‘Have you traveled recently,’ the doctor asked. ‘I have not been anywhere but my farm for ten years,” he answered.

She paused for effect and lowered her voice.

“Muerto en cuatro días!”  Dead in four days!

So much for “vida normal.”

We left the next morning.  As we waited for our flight in the Barcelona airport, I texted my nephew, who is a banker in London, to let him know I was passing through, and to express regret that we couldn’t visit.

Luggage handlers at Heathrow had come down with it, he said. Worse yet, he was showing symptoms himself, but couldn’t get tested because he couldn’t give the name and address of anyone he was in contact with who had it.

Back home, President Donald Trump had posted on Twitter, a smiling picture of himself playing a violin, because pundits had said he was fiddling as Rome burned.

Surgical masks were trending at Heathrow. And though a few days later, the president would exempt the United Kingdom from travel bans because it was an island, it is in fact a crossroads of the world, a flight hub for all of Europe.

It was time to board our flight to Phoenix, but we would not be going down the jetway.  I asked a gate attendant why not and she said that there had been so many canceled flights and they had left the canceled planes stranded at the gate.

“We don’t have enough room to park the planes,” she said.

We went down a staircase, and — as the pandemic was lighting up — they jammed us, 100 at a time onto articulated buses, and face to face to face, we rode 15 minutes out to a plane parked in the middle of nowhere out on the tarmac.

We had bulkhead seats.  The woman in the row’s third seat was wearing a black surgical mask and blue rubber gloves of the sort you use to work with chemicals.  A row back and across the aisle were two heavy-set women in saris and a tiny man.  None spoke English, and it appeared they may have never been on a plane before.  They were also wearing surgical masks. And looking back through the plane, there were so many other masks that it looked like a medical Mardi Gras party.

Directly across the aisle was a young British couple with an infant, and when I looked over, the baby was sucking on the tray table and TV monitor, anything that she could get her mouth on.  I am not a germaphobe, but I offered a sanitary wipe to clean off the surfaces.

It was an 11-hour flight.  Every sneeze and every cough seemed to echo like a gunshot.

It could have been worse.  A week earlier a good friend flew from Hawaii to Phoenix and before takeoff, there was an altercation on the plane when a man had an asthma attack.  Another man started screaming for him to get off the plane immediately, and when other passengers asked him to calm down, he started to fire off f-bombs.  The flight attendants intervened and informed the two men that one of them had to leave.  The asthma guy deplaned.

Back on my plane, the flight attendants were very taken with the baby sitting across from me.  They would go by and make cooing noises and wave, and one of them, came up the aisle wearing plastic gloves because she was collecting the passengers’ dirty food trays.  As she passed the baby, she offered a gloved little finger for the baby to grab.  And the baby did, and neither the parents nor the flight attendant thought anything of it.

And as if that weren’t surreal enough, the woman next to us with the surgical mask and the rubber gloves, got up from her seat, crossed the aisle, and asked to hold the baby.  The parents passed her over.

My jaw dropped.

There was no screening at Customs and Immigration in Phoenix.

My university announced that we would be going remote, teaching class over conferencing software.  My significant other got sent home from work, even though she is the boss, because she had been to Europe, and by then, cases had exploded in Spain and it became a hot spot.  Two weeks of exile.  Well okay.

That evening, after the president imposed a travel ban on flights from Europe, the news showed video from the Madrid airport as Americans scrambled to get out. It looked like the last flight out of Saigon.

You know the rest.  The panic hoarders started clearing the supermarket shelves, first of sanitary wipes and toilet paper, as if the sequel to this disaster film called “COVID” will be something titled “Apoopalypse Now.”

My daughter, who is due back in Los Angeles from a business trip to Australia, keeps assuring me that everything is fine there.

The worst is falling into the panic wondering if we picked it up somewhere along the way. (And if so, my money is on the flight from London.)

All I want to do is escape to somewhere far away.

But there’s nowhere left to go.


Michael Kiefer is an award-winning journalist, formerly of The Arizona Republic and The USA Today Network. He has mostly covered crime and punishment, but he’s also reported extensively from Europe and North and South America and has written for dozens of magazines including Playboy, Esquire, Self and Outside, where he was an associate editor. He is the author of six books, including Into Umbria.

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