Braving essential travel

What was it like to fly to California and back during the coronapocalypse?

5 minute read
Eerily empty: SFO Terminal B at 8pm on April 4. (Photo by Roz Warren.)
Eerily empty: SFO Terminal B at 8pm on April 4. (Photo by Roz Warren.)

The library where I work had closed. I was safe in my cozy little house, sheltering on my own, with lots of books and plenty of coffee, and my piano.

I’m 65. When it comes to COVID-19, that puts me in a high-risk category. I knew what I had to do to stay safe. Stay home.

But on March 16, my son phoned. I was needed in California to help with an urgent family matter.

The CDC was recommending that travelers at higher risk for COVID-19 complications avoid all nonessential air travel. Unfortunately, this wasn’t nonessential.

I had to be there.

Dreadful preparations

So, with a feeling of utter dread, I packed a suitcase. (Including four pounds of Starbucks French roast coffee. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I wanted to be caffeinated.)

My sister gave me the N95 mask she keeps on hand to protect her whenever she has to spray-paint the cast-iron patio furniture.

I put on the mask, swallowed a Valium, and headed to the Philadelphia airport.

Why weren’t they worried?

I felt very conspicuous wearing that mask in our airport. Only a few folks wore one. And there were so many people there! None of whom were making much of an effort at physical distancing.

To cope with my anxiety about all of this, I took out my hand sanitizer and indulged in my new favorite pastime — making sure my hands were squeaky clean.

On the plane, I wiped down every surface that I could possibly come into contact with using Lysol wipes. And, throughout the flight, I continued to obsessively use my hand sanitizer.

Other than that, it was a normal flight. Too normal. When the flight attendant leaned in pleasantly to ask me what I wanted to drink, I leaned back and held my breath.

Midflight, I overheard two young women behind me snickering about the fact that I was wearing a mask.

Why wasn’t everyone as terrified of the virus as I was?

The only silver lining of flying during a pandemic? I was so busy worrying about catching COVID from an armrest or air vent that I didn’t once worry about the plane crashing.


Once I got to California, I found that the Bay Area was way ahead of Philadelphia on COVID awareness. A strict stay-at-home order had already been issued. (Governor Wolf wouldn’t put one into effect for Pennsylvania for another six days.)

Everything was closed. Everybody was home. And most wore masks. During my two-week stay, I saw people driving by alone in their cars with masks on.

The fact that I was surrounded by people who thought things were as dire as I did was oddly reassuring. I could trust them to take this seriously.

Homeward bound

It was April 4 before I was finally able to return home. I put my mask back on and headed to the airport to take the red-eye back to Philly.

Not comfortable to wear for 12 hours straight, but worth it. (Photo by Roz Warren.)
Not comfortable to wear for 12 hours straight, but worth it. (Photo by Roz Warren.)

Normally SFO is a crowded, bustling airport. Tonight? When I got out of the cab, there wasn’t a soul on the sidewalk out front. No travelers. No security. No cars.

As I stood on the sidewalk, a lone airport worker emerged from a doorway several yards away and walked off, yelling, “I am so BORED!”

Inside the airport, there was nobody else in the security line. I just walked between the rope barriers alone, back and forth, until I got to the TSA checkpoint dude. He wore a mask. And he didn’t ask me to remove my mask when he checked my ID.

The concourse was totally deserted. All the shops and restaurants were locked up tight. There was nobody else in sight. It was surreal.

I felt like the only passenger there.

Instead of the usual announcements about flights and gates and boarding times, all of the announcements were about COVID.

What are you doing here? they demanded, on an endless loop. There’s a stay-at-home order! Is this really necessary? Why the hell are you flying? What’s your problem? Go home!

“I am going home,” I wanted to protest. “I can’t wait to be home.”

I hoped I could make it home without bringing a virus with me.

Sanitize and sleep

In the waiting area near the gate, there were large, brightly-colored stickers on the seats and similar markers on the floor at six-foot intervals to show people where they had to sit or stand to comply with physical-distancing rules. If you didn’t comply with those indicators and tried to stand or sit too close to your fellow travelers, the security people would yell at you.

I killed time in the terminal for two hours, mostly texting with friends to cope with my feeling of impending doom—although, honestly, SFO felt like the safest place I could possibly be. There was nobody here. Who was going to infect me?

It was just as strange on the airplane. There were just 12 passengers. Most were wearing masks. The flight attendants weren’t wearing masks, but they should have been. (WTF, American Airlines?)

Due to the virus, they announced, there would be no food or beverage service.

As soon as we hit cruising altitude, I found three seats to stretch across, sanitized the dickens out of everything I might possibly touch, and went to sleep, still wearing my mask.

And now for quarantine

We landed early the next morning. The Philadelphia airport was way too crowded. Stores and eateries were open! There were so many people! Few of them wore masks.

After two weeks in COVID-conscious California, this just seemed wrong.

When I got back to my house, I finally took off the mask I’d been wearing for the past 12 hours. Then I took off most of what I had worn on the plane and left it, along with my suitcase, on the sunporch, and hit the bathroom to enjoy a long, soapy shower.

After which I resolved to quarantine myself for 14 days. As of this writing, I’m on day 12. No virus symptoms yet. Fingers crossed.

Should you fly? Absolutely not. It is scary. But if you have to fly? I am here to tell you that you can do it.

But you probably won’t enjoy it.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation