Traveling During a Pandemic

Where will we go next?
by Steve Weiner, 25 April 2020 (photos by Ekin Balcıoğlu)

We got tickets on Tuesday for the evacuation flight out of Turkey on Thursday at 2am. The US Embassy had been keeping us informed about limited commercial travel options back to the states, which forced us to consider routes through Doha or Minsk — two places I wanted to avoid getting stuck in. When Qatar Airlines stopped flying from Istanbul, the State Department managed to coordinate direct flights to NY, DC, and LA and strongly urged US Citizens and permanent residents to consider these the only near-term flight options. With rolling lockdowns and the month of Ramadan coming, it was clear if we didn’t travel now we’d have to remain in Turkey until the end of May, at the earliest.

Attempting international travel during a pandemic on short notice meant a lot of logistics had to come together quickly. We needed permission from the Turkish police to cross certain geographic boundaries at a dozen health checkpoints along the 300 mile drive from our isolation outside of Izmir to Istanbul where we would catch a plane to LA. The flight was scheduled during a country-wide curfew, which prohibited over 80 million people from leaving their homes except in an emergency. 

Istanbul Airport — April 2020

The Istanbul airport  — one of the world’s largest — was almost entirely abandoned. The grand concourse, which usually boasts high-fashion boutiques like Gucci, Hermes, and Bottega Veneta, was in mothballs. The duty free shop was laid up and preserved in plastic and a solitary çay stand and pharmacy were the only remnants of commerce. The few emergency personnel there for security, temperature checks, and flight operations were wearing masks and gloves. Any employees that were flying in the plane or working with luggage were additionally wearing hazmat suits and ski goggles. Every passenger had their own row for the 14-hour flight and individually-wrapped food was served in a plastic bag that said “We Will Succeed Together”. 

Nobody wants to travel like this. 

Flight Attendant on Turkish Airlines evacuation flight

It’s hard to grasp how shut down the world is until you are really out in it. Venturing out beyond the grocery store or local green space that might still be open, makes it clear that we are a long way from normal. To complete our journey, we rented a car and drove up I-5 to San Francisco. There was no traffic through LA, but the interstate had its normal flow of trucks. Every five minutes an Amazon tractor trailer went by — another sign of pandemic life. Even rural truck stops have been retrofitted with plexiglas at the cash register and signage encouraging customers and employees to keep a safe distance. From the the Aegean coast of Turkey to the Central Valley of California, COVID has left its mark in less than two months. A mark that won’t soon polish off. 

All things considered, our life in Turkey during the pandemic had been pretty ideal: there’s plenty of locally-sourced food and supplies, the weather was starting to get nice, and we were working on a garden. But we only intended to stay for two weeks and needed to get back to our cat in SF and to figure out what comes next. 

What we’ve observed in the 48 hours since our return has me wondering where an American city — especially one that was already suffering from an affordability crisis, extreme wealth inequality, rampant homelessness, and crumbling infrastructure — goes from here. We are self-quarantining for the next two weeks and have only emerged to get groceries, which has become a major life event. The queue outside the supermarket was over an hour long due to new capacity constraints that minimize humans interacting inside. Some items were off the shelves by mid-morning due to long and fragile supply chains that are struggling to catch up to the demand of urbanites suddenly eating at home all at once. 

We’re grateful to live next to a large city park, which is replete with solo exercisers and appropriately distanced lawn-dwellers. (Thankfully, COVID appears to have killed spikeball.) It’s wonderful that there’s less traffic and more people are instead jogging or enjoying a picnic in the middle of the day, however the city lacks a certain buzz of productivity. The lucky ones who still have jobs probably have more time on their hands having learned the dirty little secret that working from home is far more efficient than commuting to an office with lots of distractors. When companies and business lobbying groups seek indemnification to reopen workplaces, the writing is on the wall: going in to work — unless absolutely unavoidable — isn’t happening anytime soon. For people who work on a laptop, this could eventually happen in shifts (e.g. the sales and marketing departments must collaborate in person, so they’ll meet on Mondays, product and engineering on Tuesdays, etc.), but it’s hard to safely practice social distancing in a conference room. How many people can reasonably attend meetings when you are sitting six feet apart? (Who will want to be in that awkward meeting anyway?) For people who work in factories, schools, and restaurants or in the services industries, the job they’ll return to will be much less convenient, to say nothing about the hazard of contracting COVID at work. By the way, more than half of Americans think working right now would put their health at risk.

Rumors are swirling that orders to remain isolated will be extended in some American cities as other regions begin to see what reopening parts of the economy looks like. It’s tough to encourage people to go out and spend money, especially when two-thirds of Americans are concerned that restrictions will be lifted too quickly. It’s even tougher when over 25 million people filed for unemployment in the past few weeks.  

More to follow…

San Francisco — April 2020

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