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As the country begins its slow road to recovery from a pandemic that has ravaged communities from east to west, people are starting to resume their social activities – among them, travel.
This July 4th weekend marks in a way an important step to get back to “normal”. President Joe Biden has said since his inauguration that his goal is for the celebration to be a turning point – and the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention gave those who are vaccinated the green light to party celebrate, travel and basically do whatever they would have done in the past.
A lot of people seem ready to do it.
More than 47.7 million Americans plan to travel on Independence Day – just 2.5% less than in 2019 and almost 40% increase from 2020, new poll finds of AAA travel.
While the CDC has officially given vaccinated people the green light to travel to the United States, it has asked unvaccinated people to delay their travel plans unless it is essential (and if they have to, they must. follow a series of precautions including testing, quarantine and wearing a mask.)
I am among the roughly 58% of Californians fully vaccinated (and almost 68% in Alameda County), receiving my second injection of Moderna vaccine in early April. By following the CDC’s updated travel guidelines, I unplugged planning for my first “post-pandemic” vacation. This is a term I use loosely because the country is not out of the woods yet, considering new variations and only about 46% of the population fully vaccinated.
I made the decision to plan a vacation after reading a lot about immunization rates, vaccine successes, and safety protocols. Throughout the pandemic, I have contributed to The Oaklandside newsroom’s continued coverage of COVID-19, so for personal and professional reasons I have followed the advice of medical experts such as Sam Horwich Scholefield with the Alameda County Public Health Department and Bob wachter, the chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of San Francisco.
Their advice was crucial in deciding vacation planning was safe. Once I got comfortable, my boyfriend and I started planning our trip to New Orleans (where only 34.3% of the population is fully vaccinated), and we bought our plane ticket from Oakland International Airport for early June.
According to OAK spokespersons Roberto Bernardo and Kaley Skantz, travel through OAK – the second busiest airport in the Bay Area – has resumed in recent times. In June 2020, the airport welcomed a total of 255,052 passengers. As of June, the airport expects to serve around 850,000 passengers – that’s a huge increase, but still only around 70% of 2019 passenger levels. As for this July 4th bank holiday weekend, OAK expects around 160,000 travelers from July 1-5 alone, more than triple 2020 levels for the same five-day period.
For our trip in early June, we chose to take an early flight at 7am on a Friday, hoping to beat the weekend crowds a bit. At such an early hour, the wait for a Lyft or an Uber was longer than normal. The same delay happened when we got home around midnight, and seems to be the case for many travelers due to a shortage of drivers, occurring in part because of drivers who quit during the pandemic and did not return. The decrease in the number of drivers also means higher rates.
The situation seems to be gradually improving – Lyft recently ad that compared to May, the number of drivers has increased by 10%, and the waiting time is down by 15 to 20%.
But if you plan to use a carpooling service to get to the airport, give yourself plenty of extra time. For those who prefer public transport, keep in mind that BART always closes around 9 p.m., and regular service won’t return until August 30. As at airports, you must wear a mask in Lyfts, Ubers, taxis and on public transport. BART has this requirement in place until at least September 30.
When we got to the airport, we made our way to the Delta counter, which was deserted from the crowded Southwest and Hawaiian airline check-in lines. According to Bernardo, the current top destinations departing from OAK are: Southern California, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Reno, Phoenix, Denver, and the Pacific Northwest (including Seattle, Portland, Idaho and Montana).
The US Transportation Security Administration still requires masks at airports and planes across the country, regardless of local ordinances and regardless of immunization status. This order runs until September 13 and applies to all people over 2 years of age, with exemptions for certain disabilities.
The TSA checkpoint went smoothly – while social distancing didn’t really happen, all airport workers wore masks and passengers only had to briefly remove their face covers to show the officer their face after their ID has been scanned.
When boarding, out of caution, we decided to exchange our fabric masks for KN95s for the duration of the flight.
I expected to feel anxiety around strangers in a confined space after so many months locked up, but found the experience of waiting at the door surprisingly easy. On the day we left, the people at the gates of OAK kept a physical distance and wore masks unless they were sipping a drink or eating. The same can’t be said on the two stopovers at LAX and Salt Lake City, where the airports were crowded and the distance minimal.
Once on the plane, we received individually wrapped wet wipes. Nonetheless, we’ve chosen to wipe our seats with medical grade disinfectant wipes for added peace of mind, even though airline policy is to disinfect planes between flights.
Our plane was completely full. If you were hoping the middle seat was locked for more space, be aware that most airlines have lifted this restriction and you probably won’t get that luxury.
You will also need to wear a mask for the duration of the flight, unless you eat or drink. While incidents with rowdy passengers refusing masks are on the rise, I was glad to have been spared such a scene. Due to the increase in violent behavior among passengers refusing to comply with the mask rule, American Airlines and Southwest have postponed alcohol service until September 13 when the rule of the federal mandate of the mask on airplanes should be lifted, but could be extended.
Overall the ride was smooth and when I landed in New Orleans I was more than ready for a change of scenery.
It is understandable that some people are still hesitant to fly. I did it too. It took a while for me to feel ready. Ultimately, I felt confident in the vaccine’s ability to keep me safe and realized that being able to travel – due to being fully immunized and having the financial means – is a privilege. Unfortunately, our neighbors of other countries have not had the same opportunities to be vaccinated. In Mexico, only 13.69% of the country is fully vaccinated. Other countries like Venezuela, Honduras, Taiwan and Syria all fall below the 1% mark.
For many of us who choose to venture out of our homes again, socializing, traveling and roaming without a mask still take some getting used to.
Traveling south out of state has opened our eyes, given the freedom with which people have waived pandemic precautions. I entered the trip blindly, not knowing what it would be like to be inside a crowded restaurant or bar. Once there, however, I felt grateful to step out of the house and see how people are slowly rebuilding themselves after what we’ve all been through collectively.