Wednesday, 4 March 2020
I follow the news—all the news—so I was aware, even in late December, that there was an outbreak in China of something-something, and it was bad, and they shut down a city of eleven million people and built sixteen emergency hospitals in a month. Listen, I had a world of stress of my own—work-related—in December, and a trip planned to see my grandbaby. But I was impressed by those hospitals.
I took January off. (I’m self-employed, and I get along with my boss.) I spent the month having two cataract surgeries, catching up on my correspondence, my Ancestry-dot-com activities (actually, there is no such thing as catching up with Ancestry), my sleep, my reading … and also during that time I made a beautiful, detailed itinerary for the two-week trip we were taking in mid-March to Germany to visit friends (a week at their place making day trips, then splitting a week in the Black Forest and the Alps). I researched all the sights to see, mapped everything, made all the reservations (car, hotels, even massages!) and wrote it all up. It is a thing of beauty, I tell you, that itinerary.
But it was on my radar, that something-something (although we didn’t even think to connect it to our trip scheduled for March), because I’m old enough to remember other pandemics. I have relatives who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. I myself got H1N1, which was not airborne but transmitted by touch. (It was miserable. I was bedridden for two weeks and weak and sick for another month.)
Then China quarantined an entire city/province and built two giant hospitals in ten days in early January. That got everybody’s attention. Travel to China came to a halt. Then flights were banned.
Then it got bad in South Korea. And Japan. Iran.
About mid-February I started wondering if travel to another country was a good idea. I mean, you know how much trouble I used to have flying.
We knew by then that China had tried to cover up the severity of the outbreak when it first happened. Now we were hearing that the Iranian government was saying one thing (few cases) and health care workers were saying something else (many cases). One television clip showed the Iranian deputy health minister speaking at a press conference and looking very, very unwell. Every night on the news there were more countries with reported cases. It went from four countries to eight to two dozen in, like, two days, maybe three.
I started checking the CDC website. I started looking for news on Germany. They had zero cases.
Gerry and I started talking about it every night. Travel is exhausting. We’re old. Gerry was more concerned about passing through the airports, where there are many people who could be carriers, than what we might find on the other end. We’d connect in DC, not a small airport. And Frankfurt, for example, is a center for international banking; its airport is the hub for all Lufthansa flights and it gets a lot of business (fifteenth busiest in the world). Rachel Maddow said on the news one night she had never been to Germany to visit but had many times been through the Frankfurt airport because it was where you change planes arriving from anywhere east of the Mississippi, and going just about anywhere else, even the Middle East.
On February 21st we learned that the Trump administration had no contingency plan for any of this: back in May 2018, John Bolton broke up the team in charge of global health security which had been set up by President Obama when the ebola virus surfaced. Because the Trump administration has been systematically undoing anything done by the Obama administration, as one does. Childish, but true.
Then we started hearing about the one California case. And the people quarantined at that hotel in Tenerife. And bringing the infected Americans home from the cruise ship against CDC recommendations. Large gatherings—festivals, business conventions—were being canceled all over the world.
By Tuesday the 25th I was researching, daily, in earnest. No cases in Germany that night. But that day, Stars & Stripes* reported, “Some Army facilities in Italy could be shuttered beyond March 1 due to concerns related to the coronavirus, which the military expects will also have implications for troops in Germany.” We learned the US government can establish a quarantine without warrant or recourse, and we might have to pay for it if we were away from home.
We’d been talking every evening at bedtime about what we’d read. At first it seemed like it was too soon to tell, right? Still, all these facts started to accumulate, so we asked ourselves every night: should we go or not? Neither of us are fearful people; we were determined to go. But this Tuesday was the day we really started to wonder about what we should do. The stock market had tanked on Monday, more than a thousand points, and on Tuesday it was down another 879 points (on Thursday it would drop another 1190). And Trump started accusing Democrats of, no joke, talking about, raising concerns about the coronavirus to make him look bad. At his rally in South Carolina on Friday, he called the coronavirus a hoax. No, really. Someone should make that guy shut up.
After that, things really heated up. Pandemic talk everywhere. The day before Germany had five reported cases; the next there were a thousand people (not confirmed cases, just a safety move) quarantined up near Bonn after a festival, and the German government had begun registering anyone arriving in the country by air or by sea. The situation was (and still is) just incredibly fluid. Day after day, in the morning I was positive about keeping our plans; by evening I was discouraged. Gerry and I kept talking about what the dangers were. We were concerned about (in no particular order):
> passing through busy airports and picking up the virus there and bringing it to our friends in Germany;
> similarly, inadvertently bringing the virus home to our own community;
> the potential for closure of important historical sites we’d like to visit;
> having flights canceled while we were in Germany and not being able to get home;
> that because vacations are tiring, we could be lowering our resistance to anything we might be exposed to.
But those plane tickets were expensive and American Airlines wasn’t and still isn’t waivering flights to Frankfurt (see update 1 below). We didn’t want to sacrifice thousands of dollars without seeing if they’d do the right thing first.
By Friday the 28th, we began hearing that major airports were becoming … not busy. Lufthansa were sending staff home from Frankfurt airport due to lack of business. We heard JFK was very slow. That same day there were sixty confirmed cases in Germany. The day before it had been five. Five! I checked the American Airlines website again, hoping for a recognition of reality. However, at that point, if you were traveling to or through or from:
- Bologna, Italy (BLQ)
- Florence, Italy (FLR)
- Milan Linate, Milan, Italy (LIN)
- Milan Milapensa, Milan, Italy (MXP)
- Milan Orio al Serio, Milan, Italy (BGY)
- Naples, Italy (NAP)
- Pisa, Italy (PSA)
- Rome, Italy (FCO)
- Turin, Italy (TRN)
- Venice, Italy (VCE)
- Verona, Italy (VRN)
Your change fee may (notice that may!) be waived if you …
- Are traveling on an American Airlines flight
- Bought your ticket by February 27, 2020
- Are scheduled to travel February 27 – March 15, 2020
- Can travel February 27 – April 3, 2020 (notice how little movement in dates)**
- Don’t change your origin or destination city
- Rebook in the same cabin or pay the difference
So you see, American was really not offering much. And as I write this on 6 March, the material is the same.
The very next day, Saturday the 29th, Washington State quadrupled its affected citizens in one day. On Sunday, Germany had more cases: 129, compared with 66 on Saturday. There was a confirmed case in NYC and one in Providence, Rhode Island, forty minutes’ drive away from my grandgirl. And in Paris that same Sunday, the staff of the Louvre did not open the doors in the morning but stayed closed to have a staff meeting about the coronavirus. They were supposed to open for the afternoon, but did not. That’s right: the Louvre stayed closed all day. We started to wonder if discretion would be the better part of valor.
Also that weekend: news that officials think Washington State’s cases are underreported, that it’s been there for weeks. Most cases are mild. But it spreads like wildfire. And the United States can’t accurately report confirmed cases, because they have few working tests (see update 2 on this below); meanwhile, the Trump administration can’t or won’t seem to acquire any.
In fact, Trump is more worried about the stock market, which was at a ten-year low (that is, lower than the 2008 recession) a few days ago. He continues to call it a hoax and says that it is no worse than the flu (but do note the flu doesn’t generally shut down global markets). Nonetheless, he appointed Mike Pence to head up a team of no science/medical experts whatsoever, the efforts of which consist of muzzling the scientists at the CDC (all communications must run through Pence). Consider this: Why are there so few tests for the coronavirus in the United States? (Fewer tests, fewer confirmed cases.) Why is Trump holding political rallies instead of working to solve this problem? (He’s concerned about reelection. If his administration, such as it is, even pretends to work on a solution it shows there is a problem.) Why is Pence, supposedly in charge of the coronavirus response, appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s show and attending a fund-raiser instead? (Again, if Pence gives any time to a solution to the coronavirus pandemic, it proves there is a problem. Of course, if it emerges that there really is a problem, Trump will feel free to blame Pence for not solving it.)
On Monday March 2nd, our friends in Germany got in touch. We’d talked the week before, when we affirmed that we were coming, and they affirmed that everything seemed fine. This time, though, they were starting to question the wisdom of anyone visiting from the States. They were surrounded by confirmed cases and had heard rumors that flights to the States might be restricted. (One of our worries.) We agreed. That very day British Airways had started canceling flights to Europe, including Germany, from London. And a close friend had told me her employer, a large corporation, had issued a travel ban to its employees. No travel for work—and not for pleasure either. All employees were also instructed to be prepared at any moment to work from home.
I kept thinking that any minute American Airlines would score a public relations coup by announcing that anyone could change flights—even the nonrefundable ones like ours—penalty free. (I know this is going to be hard for everyone in the tourism industry. How could it not be? But they could go into this easily, building lots of goodwill. Or not.) Yet nothing has changed with them. The website informs folks to call reservations. I did. The Reservations lady told me to contact Customer Relations through the AA website. (“But the website told me to call you,” I said. “And you have,” she said. “Now I’m telling you to contact Customer Relations.”) She had to talk me through it, that’s how hard it is to find the place to send a message to Customer Relations. I sent CR a simple message (coached by the lady at Reservations). I got an email from them right away, informing me that it will take up to five business days or more to reply to me. That fifth business day is next Tuesday, the day before we are scheduled to fly to Washington DC and then on to Frankfurt.
I have no idea what to do to salvage that situation. I thought wait-and-see was the correct thing to do. I thought not panicking was the right thing to do.
Now it’s Wednesday the 4th. We are still checking the news. Today the Berlin Spectator says, “On Monday of last week, Germany did not have a single confirmed Coronavirus case. By now there are more than 260. Almost all federal states are affected. At the Virchow Clinic in Berlin, patients who might be infected formed a waiting line in front of an emergency admission established for that purpose.” I also read that there’d been some panic buying in some areas.
So that’s where we’re at.*** We had a trip to Germany planned, and we were very much looking forward to it. And now we don’t have a trip scheduled (although we still have flights we do not intend to take). Almost everything was checked off my pre-travel to-do list. Now almost everything is checked off my cancellation to-do list. We are sad, but resigned. My attitude about travel has always been we have enough time to see what we want to see, and I’m taking that to heart in this situation. See you next year, Germany.
• • •
* Stars and Stripes is an American military newspaper that focuses and reports on matters concerning members of the US armed forces. It’s a trusted source. I am mostly not linking most of my sources here because you know this news as well as I do.
** Later AA adjusted the dates out to June 30, 2020.
*** I kept having to change this as I wrote because things were developing; pardon me if I’ve gotten the timeline wrong.
• • •
UPDATE 1 on American Airlines: at 10:44pm on Wednesday night, March 4th, AA sent me an email saying they would voucher our tickets. (We did not get the entire cost back, but we got most of it.) A voucher (as opposed to a waiver) means we don’t have to decide on a date right now, nor do we have to go to Germany. They’re good until 4 March 2021.
UPDATE 2: The CDC managed to send out a significant amount of test kits this first week in March. It’s not nearly enough yet. The Trump administration was caught flat-footed on this, possibly because Trump doesn’t want to test because it will show there are are more cases than he’d like to admit to. Meanwhile, a few states like New York and California have begun producing their own tests. He is still telling audiences and journalists that it is “mostly contained.” Oh yeah.
UPDATE 3: Los Angeles City and County declared state of emergency on the 4th. And Italy closed all schools and universities nationwide.
UPDATE 4: On the 5th, a friend who lives in the DC airport area called me and said, “Lots of new cases in my neighborhood, please don’t fly through DC.” Also on the 5th it began to be reported that the pathological changes described for this new coronavirus are consistent with COVID19 clinical reports (pulmonary fibrosis and lymphopenia). The lung damage caused by this coronavirus is also similar to the damage caused by the closely related SARS virus. Autopsies of COVID victims in China suggest this virus is “like a combination of SARS and AIDS as it damages both the lungs and immune systems,” and can cause “irreversible” lung damage even if the patient survives.
UPDATE 5: Also on the 5th, the CEO of Southwest Airlines said on CNBC: “We’re 97 percent domestic, so what we’re seeing is a drop-off in domestic travel. … It has a 9/11-like feel.” This was in response to Trump saying people are staying in the US and spending their money in the US.
UPDATE 6: South by Southwest, a conglomeration of music, tech, and media festivals helf annually in Austin Texas, was cancelled on the 6th, ten days before it was due to start.
UPDATE 7: On Saturday the 7th we started seeing roundtrip flights from NYC to Rome for—I kid you not—$276.
UPDATE 8: On the 19th the State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory advising US citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19, saying, “If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”
• • •
The story goes on and on, of course. (Every day.) No doubt you have seen how bad it is, and how right we were to cancel. We don’t regret our decision.