Sunday, November 22, 2020

Travel Tips During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Vlog

This post is available as a vlog as as service to the blind, the illiterate, and the lazy. If you are blind, I hope somebody will start up the video for you so you can listen. (As for not seeing anything, trust me ... you’re not missing much.) If you are illiterate, I hope the Play button is self-explanatory. If you are lazy, congratulations on making it this far.


Introduction

As if the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t bad enough, we as a nation are also facing a lot of scolds who have sky-is-falling, buzzkill attitudes about getting together with our families over the holidays. I say if we’re going to simply ignore or defy these naysayers, we might as well be responsible about it. This post tells you how.

Planning your trip

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What about healthy families? It’s worth taking some time to think about your particular crew and its COVID-19 profile. If your family Thanksgiving dinners inevitably descend into vicious long-winded bouts of character assassination, with everybody yelling at once like protesters at a political rally, maybe it’s best to sit out this holiday season. On the other hand, if the grownups sit with their hands in their laps, staring at their plates and finding themselves once again at a loss for words, while the kids sit isolated in another room, peering into their smartphones, silent and sullen for the entire long weekend, then it’s game on for holiday festivities!

Let’s be realistic about it, though: there is some question as to whether traveling is safe right now. According to the Georgia Departmentof Public Health, “Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in many states, and some areas are experiencing community spread of the disease.” Wow. I did not know that. Thanks, Georgia! (Yes, click the link and see for yourself: they really did say that.)

As it stands, the pandemic is certainly escalating. One of the main risks right now is the colder weather, with everybody gathering indoors. So instead of you and your far-flung siblings rendezvousing in Duluth, Bismarck, or Fargo where your parents live, you should have everybody meet up in a warmer clime. Australia would be ideal, but avoid the big urban centers. Kiwirrkurra, which is 450 miles from the nearest city, would be ideal. Kiwirrkurra’s population is barely over 200, so there can’t be much coronavirus there! Plan your trip carefully though, because it’s probably no tourist mecca … chances are you’ll be camping out. And steer clear of the locals ... you wouldn’t want to wipe out an entire community.

Flying during COVID-19

A new study by the US Department of Defense suggests that aircraft ventilation systems aren’t actually spreading the virus as badly as previously thought. “Planes don’t spread lethal viruses—people do,” snarled retired Lieutenant Colonel Miles Briggs, who knows a guy involved with the study. Unfortunately, when I fact-checked this article I discovered that its conclusion was based on a misunderstanding: the authors were talking about two-seater fighter planes where both travelers have those cool helmets with built-in air supply hoses.

Notwithstanding the DOD’s little goof, it is true that even the CDC has acknowledged the efficacy of ventilation systems on airplanes. Thus, the chances of spreading the virus on the plane aren’t that high … you won’t start infecting people until you reach your destination or have returned home. Obviously the problem isn’t spreading the virus geographically, but contracting it somewhere between points A and B. After all, the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is … wait. I’m getting a bit confused. Let’s move on.

It turns out the airplane itself may not be the most dangerous part of your trip. There are also the logistical hurdles at either end. Taking a cab or Lyft to the airport would obviously be a bad idea, so you’ll want to drive there and park in the long-term parking, expense be damned. But the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal is also out of the question, so leave an extra hour early and walk.

The security line is of course a Petri dish of coronavirus. Look at this typical line. I don’t think that’s six feet between travelers; that woman’s mask has slipped down below her nose; and the dippy little dog doesn’t even have a mask! (Can a dog transmit COVID? Hello, we had a bat and a pangolin infecting people already … a slobbering, yapping dog is obviously a mobile four-legged superspreader event!)


Conventional wisdom has it that you should skip the long security line by using TSA Precheck or CLEAR, but that actually might be worse than the longer queue. Why? Because you’ll be in line with frequent travelers—the guys who continue to travel on business, all over the country, treating our beleaguered nation like their own personal coronavirus tasting menu. You want to steer clear of those guys, believe me. Instead, just walk from long-term parking right out to the jetway and simply board the plane, without having set foot in the airport! If you act natural, they’ll just wave you through. Note that this means flying only on those tiny commuter planes without the enclosed jetway bridges, so you may have to hopscotch a bit to your final destination, but hey, safety first!

If you can’t take a commuter plane and are forced to brave the airport security line, remember that the most dangerous aspect of air travel is forgetting to remove your toiletry items from their kit and place them in a Ziploc bag. If your toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo aren’t segregated like this, the virus has already won. Also, if you have any liquid in a container over 3.4 ounces, you can pretty much kiss your whole family goodbye, unless the TSA catches you and saves the day (again). The exception is that they’re now allowing alcohol-based hand cleaner in containers up to 12 ounces, bless their hearts. So you can bring plenty of that, whether it’s to clean your hands with or to squirt on fellow-travelers.

Brace yourself for some unpleasant changes, though. Airports, which were crappy to begin with, have become even worse. For one thing, they aren’t offering the same amenities, like that $9 beer you normally splurge on because your can no longer handle your (spouse, kids, loneliness) without taking the edge off. Tip: bring your own beer, and charge your (spouse, kids, neighbor in security line) $9 a bottle so they can feel a sense of nostalgic normalcy while you make a few bucks. Yes, you’ll have to consume the unsold beers quickly before going through security, but chugging three or four good IPAs in 30 seconds at the threshold of the X-ray (actually, it’s properly called a millimeter-wave full body scanner) is bound to get your flight off to a good start.

As far as the flight itself, the best way to ensure safety is to make sure you’re well-equipped. I’m not just talking about N95 masks—though those are a good start—but also a good sturdy face shield (not just for blocking droplets, but in case you get in a fistfight, which is not unlikely during these trying times) and also some great noise-canceling headphones, so you won’t be unduly stressed out by the sounds of sneezing and coughing all around you, or people barking at you trying to pick a fight. If you can get your hands on one of those cool fighter pilot helmets with the built-in air supply hoses, that would be ideal.

Most planes use HEPA filters, but how will you know in advance about the plane you’re on, since airlines swap out the aircraft at their whim? The answer is, you can’t know: so bring your own HEPA filter if you can. Since these vary dramatically in size and shape from one manufacturer to the next, practice at home first. Ideally, you can bend the filter so it conforms almost exactly to your head.

If you can, get a window seat. Studies show that people in the aisle are there for a reason—usually because they use the disgusting lavatory several times during the flight, pace up and down the aisle constantly, rummage around in the overhead bin touching whosever bag they want, and otherwise act out annoyingly. Having one of these dirtbag extroverts right across the aisle can’t be a good thing. Meanwhile, if you’re sitting in the window seat and things get a little stuffy, you can open the window and get some air.

Keep your eyes open during the flight in case of unsafe behavior around you. For example, the guy next to you might remove his mask for no good reason, or let his nose poke out, or has a big greasy beard with possibly pestilent saliva dripping down it. Or maybe his mask is made out of tissue paper, or a pancake. Give that guy a proper N95, or ask to change seats!

Using an aircraft bathroom is sketchy during the best of times, and especially dangerous now. The number one rule? Keep it quick! But wash your hands for at least twenty seconds. How is that quick? Doesn’t proper hand washing violate the number one rule? Hey—nobody said this pandemic would be easy. One more thing: if you suspect a pangolin has used the coach class lavatory, don’t take the risk of following it in there. Go through the forbidden curtain to the first class restroom, no matter how much the flight attendant and first class passengers yell at you.


Since the most dangerous part of a flight is removing your mask to eat, you don’t want to do that—and yet you still need hydration and sustenance. I recommend you purchase the Self Help Personal I.V. Kit for air travel ($48.99 from amazon.com, though the needle must be purchased in the airport gift shop or newsstand). With the Personal I.V., you can just run a quick intravenous line, and infuse a bag of saline if it’s a short trip, or Gatorade if it’s a long one. Heck, if it’s a full flight you might even consider putting a little bleach in there!

The road trip option

If you decide it’s just not worth the extra bother of flying, taking some extra time to turn your vacation into a road trip is an excellent idea. I fear for Generation Z, with their reluctance toward learning to drive and getting their licenses. Will they miss out entirely on the classic American young-adult road trip experience of blasting along I-70 at 90 miles an hour, sending toilet paper comets flying out the window, eating greasy fast food and blasting Nine Inch Nails at party volume to drown out the roar of air through the open moon roof? Well, maybe the pandemic can be their savior. Of course, it takes months to learn to drive and get your license, so it’s a little late for that now. Once again, the parents will have to drive, which means windows rolled up, AC on, and Maria Carey, Coldplay, or Sting on the stereo. But there are arguably worse things, like dying of COVID.

Once again, staying safe during the trip will require extra precautions. Going to the bathroom, for one thing, is going to be harder. Many service stations are using the pandemic as an excuse to shut down their restrooms, and others are simply understaffed so their restrooms are filthier than ever. The obvious solution—just pulling over to the highway shoulder, walking a ways out into the bramble, and peeing on a rock or tree trunk—isn’t fair to the women or girls in the car. Luckily, there’s a solution: you can now purchase a Foley catheter in their new “Road Warrior” edition (amazon.com, $58.95), designed specifically for consumers who aren’t comfortable with restrooms.

If you will be driving for several days, sleeping accommodations become a necessity. Campgrounds may not be open, and sleeping in random city parks with homeless people might be bad for your family’s morale. Clearly you’ll need a motel, but are they safe? Once again, the conventional wisdom—to find places that have high reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor—doesn’t apply here. Look, the most dangerous part about lodging is people: so you want to stay where nobody else is willing to go. Look for one-star reviews ranting about how filthy a place is. The gold standard here is a review containing something shocking, like “toadstools growing in the bathtub!” To remain safe, bring a large supply of disposable latex gloves, Tyvek bunny suits, plastic sheeting for the beds, and of course all your own toiletries and bedding.


Is holiday travel ethical?

It has been suggested that getting COVID-19 tests in order to travel more confidently is ethically questionable, when the number of tests—not to mention the personnel to process them—are limited. This can be a problem when we have front-line healthcare staffers to think of, and service-sector and manufacturing workers who don’t have the luxury to earn their living over videoconferences. To them I say hey, this is America. Anyone who can afford a test should just go get it. What’s all this money for, after all, if not to purchase the life we want for ourselves? Read my lips: we are having Thanksgiving with Grandpa, and yes, this means other people may die. You don’t like it, tough titty: this is just how capitalism works. You want you go spend your holidays in Russia? Be my guest. (Well …  theirs. Whatever.)

In closing: ten easy travel tips

Here are ten easy tips to keep in mind when planning or conducting holiday travel during the pandemic:

  1. Get tested for COVID-19 before, during, and after the trip.
  2. If you plan to visit a family member who has extra risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, heart conditions, cancer, or obesity, make sure these are cured before you visit them.
  3. Quarantine for two weeks before beginning travel and again when you arrive at your destination, and require all family members, including your hosts, to do the same—and then quarantine for another two weeks, ideally in a hermitically sealed room, before heading home.
  4. Download a COVID-19 app to your smartphone and use it regularly, being sure to rub down your phone frequently with an alcohol wipe.
  5. If you’re flying, get tested for COVID-19 before, during, and after the airport security screening, and before, during, and after your flight—ideally, without removing your mask.
  6. Demand COVID tests of those around you: at the airport, on the plane, at the florist, at the gift shop, and before hugging any family members.
  7. If any take-out food is served at family gatherings, make sure it’s safe by putting it under the broiler for at least 30-40 minutes, and serve it on paper plates, employing gravity rather than utensils to achieve the transfer from pan to plate.
  8. Keep your guard up—if somebody around you, whether it’s a family member or a complete stranger, endangers you by not wearing a mask, not keeping six feet away, or speaking too loudly (or worse, singing), take that dude out (but remember to wear disposable latex gloves if you strike him with your fists).
  9. Be smart about this: if you’re not that smart, read some books, take a few classes, get educated!
  10. Reconsider your actions as the situation changes. For example, if COVID-19 cases should happen to rise during your trip, don’t hesitate to just turn around and head home.

More reading on the pandemic 

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