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“Well, I’m planning on flying up to Portland, Maine next week,” I told my friend. Dead silence. Clear disapproval. I understood that. It’s early July still in the midst of our much misunderstood pandemic and I was doing something crazy. Getting on an airplane.
But how else was I going to get to the summer cabin in the small town of Rangeley in western Maine, where my husband and I have spent the last 25 years? He was driving up earlier with a packed car – and I tend to commute back and forth from Washington, DC. So a number of flights in my future.
Already my husband is sending me daily reminders of all the precautions I need to make in the age of flying during the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic - both on board and in the Uber to the airport. Multiple masks, touch as little as possible; take a lifetime supply of handi-wipes; touch as little as possible; wash your hands constantly; touch as little as possible. I’m feeling overwhelmed; also cautious but confident. Until I read another article about the potential dangers of contracting the virus in flight.
So I’m in the Uber and I want to ask the driver if he’s been to any restaurants, marched in a protest or knows anyone with the virus. I’m pretty sure those are all inappropriate questions unless I’m screening someone at a doctor’s office. I sit back – and then forward -- and try not to touch anything.
Ashrin has to prove to the Uber powers that be that he actually has a mask on before we can begin our journey. Big Brother is watching our face coverings - unless, of course, you’re at some packed indoor political rally in which case no one cares. And of course I’m worried I didn’t leave early enough. After all, it can take hours now to get through an airport. Yup, I should have left the night before.
Once at the airport – with multiple hours to spare before my flight – I now have to worry about whether or not I should risk going to the bathroom. So I unsheath my sword in the form of the first of the 27 Purell sanitizers in my purse and brave the airport ladies’ room. I emerge seemingly unscathed.
I’m used to being in a supermarket with a few other masked shoppers, but walking the concourse among a seeming multitude of masks feels like an alien experience – as well as an experience among aliens. I don’t know whether to feel relieved – or appalled… I am in a ghost town – empty check-in counters, empty security lines, empty restaurants, empty escalators – and yet still all I see are masks -- and I know the virus lurks around every empty corner.
At the gate, all the masked marauders are attempting some sort of social distancing as I look for an empty row of seats to sit in. I feel uneasy and depressed as to what really is in store for our world in both the short and long term. I am angry at the random person not wearing a mask as if he were intentionally, selfishly, perversely trying to make a personal statement by risking the health of the rest of us. I look around to see if anyone else shares my dismay but all I see is a sea of eyes – and I haven’t yet learned how to read eyes.
I am flying Southwest, my favorite airline – and instead of the usual lineup of 60 passengers on both sides of the stanchion, they board 10 folks at a time at six-foot intervals - all middle seats remaining empty unless occupied by family members. Okay, that’s reassuring.
On board, everyone is masked and cleaning every surface in sight – sometimes extending to their fellow passengers… Across the aisle sits a man encased in what appears to be a full-body condom. I notice one or two goggles, and now fearing I will contract the virus through my eyes, as has been reported, I look down at my book and remain there, except that I can’t see any of the words because my glasses keep fogging up due to the mask.
I had read some articles about flights in which flight attendants were notoriously missing, abandoning the passengers in their care, which taps into former abandonment issues. Probably true for half the plane; abandonment issues are very pervasive. Also abandoned are my four free-drink coupons wasting away in my carry-on. But no, this is Southwest Airlines, so yes there are flight attendants. I feel relieved but still bemoan the fact that my drink coupons are going to remain unredeemed.
In the middle of the usual safety briefing, I realize how surprised I am it isn’t on Zoom. I didn’t think there was anything that wasn’t on Zoom. I’m assuming that if there’s an emergency and the oxygen masks lower, you should probably remove your virus mask before attaching. These are things we didn’t have to worry about in the Before Times.
Upon arrival in Portland, I stay in my seat even while everyone else is retrieving their bags. Have they never heard of social distancing? Once outside and heading to my husband’s car, I can’t get my mask off fast enough. Breathing in the cool Maine air is like an elixir. Knowing that the state is very serious about its restrictions, I was not surprised to see a moose wearing a mask. Okay, so it was a large statue in the airport – but the message was clear.
I nod knowingly to the moose until I remember, according to Maine guidelines, I now have to quarantine for 14 days, just in time for my return trip to Washington, DC. What’s wrong with this picture? Ah, no – that’s right. I was tested for the virus the requisite 72 hours ago. So no worries, I’m negative. Until I realize I could have contracted it on the plane. So I’m still into the “what’s wrong with this picture?” mode as I head off into the sunset toward Rangeley.
Welcome to the "new normal?"