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Only spreading Aloha: A journalist reflects on air travel and tourism in the pandemic era

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Photos by Joe Killian

Last month my wife and I did something that seemed unthinkable for the last two years. We traveled nearly 5,000 miles to spend a week in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

It was a trip we’d talked about since before the COVID-19 pandemic. We dreamed, we planned, we saved. But we postponed it repeatedly, then indefinitely, as the light at the end of the tunnel provided by vaccines and boosters dimmed in the face of vaccine resistance, new variants, conspiracy theories and sometimes violent hostility toward even basic precautions like public masking.

Given all that’s been lost in the pandemic, all the ways life has changed and the many ways that we have been fortunate, losing a large vacation seemed like a small thing.

As some Policy Watch readers may remember [2], I got very ill in March of 2020 and was given the first COVID-19 test my doctor’s office had ever administered. Luckily, it was negative. But familiarity with my medical history, including a preexisting condition that affects my lungs, led my doctor to give me a serious warning.

“Be as careful as you can,” she said. “If you catch this, you’re going to end up intubated.”

Those words have guided my behavior throughout the pandemic. But it wasn’t just about me. My father and brother-in-law have both been undergoing immunocompromising cancer treatment during this pandemic. That made it all the more frustrating to see people shrug off not just vaccination but even basic public health steps because they believe they are healthy enough to survive should they personally become ill. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Slowly, painfully, it became apparent not enough people were willing to put community first and squash this thing if it meant even minor inconveniences. This was brought home for me last year, when I watched a man walk into a national chain store unmasked, past a sign on the door saying local ordinance and company policy required one. An employee offered him a mask if he didn’t have one. He walked right past her like she wasn’t there, nearly bowling her over as she spoke to him.

When I asked what they did in a situation like that, the employee sighed and said there wasn’t much they could do. There had been ugly scenes, even violence when they tried to enforce the policy. Some of the people loudly refusing to mask were open-carrying guns. So now they’d been told to leave them alone. Someone could get hurt. It wasn’t worth it.

What about those of us following the ordinance and the company policy, who believed as the store did that masking made for a safer shopping environment for everyone?

“Some people see the unmasked people, get uncomfortable and leave,” she said. “I don’t blame them. It makes me uncomfortable, too. They’re making it more dangerous for us and we have to work here. But we’re not worried about the uncomfortable people doing anything dangerous. They’ll just shop online instead.”

It’s not something I’d have ever believed I’d see, growing up in the South. Private businesses reserving the right to refuse service over public health and hygiene rules isn’t new. “No shoes, no shirt, no service” was a common sign on the doors of businesses in the coastal NC communities in which I grew up. I never once saw someone say, “Put on shoes? Why don’t you make me?”

But like it or not, that’s essentially what was happening now. Encouraged by right-wing media celebrities [3], strangers were even approaching me in public to question my decision to wear a mask.

My standard reply? “Mind your business.”

We certainly minded ours. We got vaccinated as soon as possible. We got booster shots. When N95 and KN95 masks became readily available, we wore them. When at-home antigen tests were available, we used them to make small family gatherings safer for everyone. When we didn’t cook at home, we ate outdoors or got take-out. When friends or family got sick, we did what we could for them. To relieve stress and stay connected we met friends and family for outdoor activities and rented a cabin in the North Carolina mountains with a few healthy family members who were taking the same precautions we were.

But Hawai‘i? Thirteen hours in airplanes and crowded airports, the possibility of getting sick so far from home and needing to quarantine or get medical treatment? It seemed untenable.

But then a few friends actually did it. The air travel was not pleasant, they said, but it was doable. And the COVID precautions in Hawai‘i? Some of the strongest anywhere. To enter the state you had to upload your proof of vaccination or a negative test just before departure. You had to provide info on when you were arriving and leaving, where you were staying. Health questions and temperature checks at hotels, tourist destinations and other businesses are common. Want to see the sights or eat anywhere, even on an outside patio or balcony overlooking the ocean? Better have that COVID card handy.

My wife’s twin sister lives with her family in Oregon, on the other side of the country. Last year they’d missed celebrating their 40th birthday together. We really wanted to make it happen this year. We talked it out. We planned carefully. We crossed our fingers. We booked the trip.

Flying the friendly skies

The less said about the two full days of air travel that book-ended our trip, the better. “Not pleasant” is really low-balling it. While airports and airlines are stressing safety, a lot of people using them are still rather laissez-faire.

In every airport and on every plane, we heard messages saying abusive behavior wouldn’t be tolerated — a necessary message, sadly, as violent and unruly anti-mask passengers [4] have caused far more air travel incidents in the last year than the FAA has documented in the last decade [5].

We were lucky not to experience any of those sorts of flare-ups, though instances of passengers removing their masks for an hour or two on the pretense that they were eating a small bag of peanuts were far too common. The flight crews, clearly worn down by what they’re dealing with all day were, like big-box store employees, just trying to minimize conflict. The strain showed.

Before one leg of our flight, a crew member asked me to make sure my seat was all the way forward before take-off. I apologized, saying I couldn’t tell the seat was marginally reclined when I sat down and of course I’d correct it immediately.

That mild and polite response led the crew member to almost flinch.

“I…I’m just trying to do my job, sir” she said, seemingly ready for me to scream at her.

“Of course,” I said. “I understand. Thank you.”

Whatever they’re paying these folks, it’s not enough.

While we were in Hawai‘i the rock artist and actor Meat Loaf died. I like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bat Out of Hell and Fight Club, so of course I was sad.

In reading about his death, I came across one of his last interviews. In it, he called airline crew members who wanted him to wear a mask on a plane during a pandemic that has killed more than 860,000 Americans “power mad” and “Nazis” trying to control him. He said people were bent on “stopping life because of politics.” Of COVID, he said, “If I die, I die — but I’m not going to be controlled.”

Reading that interview after a 10-plus hour day of air travel — and knowing I had another one coming on my return home — I realized Meat was one of those nightmare passengers I was lucky to have avoided. This far into the pandemic, with this much illness and death, this sort of guy continues to frame public health issues in terms of his own health, his own choice, his own death. These folks seem to lack the empathy to acknowledge how their behavior, especially somewhere like an airplane, can harm many of us who have far fewer resources and less access to great healthcare should we fall ill.

Being asked to wear a good mask in crowded public travel situations isn’t about “stopping life.” It’s the best way to continue the things you want to do in life under current, adverse circumstances while respecting the life and health of others.

You can, as my marathon air travel day proved, travel anywhere you like.

You can live your life.

You just can’t do so in a way that endangers others because you find very basic public health precautions inconvenient.

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A reminder to mask and practice social distancing to keep everyone safe.

Two out of three ain’t bad [7].

Only spreading Aloha

The moment we stepped off the plane in Honolulu, I noticed a palpable shift. And not just because it was 80 degrees and sunny, as friends and family back in North Carolina prepped for a coming ice storm.

A large public service message greeted us: a smiling woman wearing a mask that said “Only Spreading Aloha” and reminding us to mask and practice social distancing to keep everyone safe.

Remarkably, everyone, tourists and native Hawai’ians alike — was taking this seriously. We saw not one person tearing off their masks as they left the plane in the airport, letting them dangle around their necks on the trams. People were even wearing them outside, on the sidewalks and in public parks, on the beaches when they had to be near groups of other people. The entire week not one person questioned our masking and I saw no conflicts over or flouting of clearly posted masking rules in any hotel, store, restaurant or other public space.

We were asked to show our vaccination status repeatedly — while eating outdoors at restaurants, taking historical or cultural tours, even when we walked through an outdoor botanical garden that ended with an opportunity to swim through a waterfall. And it was easy to understand why. On this beautiful island whose economy is strongly tied to tourism, where visitors from all over the world are welcomed — and sorely needed — they have to protect themselves, their visitors and their future. These are small things to ask and small things to give for what you receive in return.

The vibe that week reminded me of nothing so much as my time reporting on the reservation of North Carolina’s own Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians earlier in the pandemic. There, the tribe takes masking very seriously and tourists are made aware —by signs and, when needed, by tribal members themselves — that protecting the community (and particularly its elders) is everyone’s responsibility. Flouting public health rules to assert personal liberty isn’t tolerated. They welcome visitors; they need them, really. But they expect them to behave responsibly and respectfully. And it works.

There were a lot of revelations during our time in Hawai‘i. I could talk to you a lot about thoughts it inspired on the environment, race and class, the complicated political and cultural history of the islands. But this week, I’m thinking most about what I experienced going there in an ongoing pandemic, how we did it and what it makes me think about how we’re handling it at home.

I’m also thinking about Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

There’s an early episode of Seinfeld’s show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in which the two comedians are talking in a diner. Rock decries real sugar not being on offer, waving a packet of Splenda in the air and looking for a server to complain.

“Hey,” Rock says directly to camera. “Sugar’s not a bad thing.”

You can feel him winding up for one of those classic Rock comedy sermons on how soft and backward the society’s become, like the one later in the episode about how kids need to be bullied.

Then Seinfeld gently points out there’s a giant container of sugar right in front of him on the table.

I think about this scene maybe once a week now, as I watch people (mostly but not exclusively men) complain that they can’t say anything anymore from their enormous platforms where they never stop saying anything they like, as they whine that they can’t live a normal life, including traveling as they’d like, under pandemic restrictions.

Their very first instinct appears to be offense. Affronted by change, they begin waving their hands and talking loudly about how the entire society has morphed in ways so disturbing and stupid they must be mocked…even if they need only turn their heads a quarter of an inch to find what they wanted still there among the many options. It’s right there. But you do have to turn your head, see it and reach.

My dad, a career Marine, taught me this growing up: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”

That’s how you win.

You don’t meet a crisis by digging in your heels, refusing to make any changes and insisting conditions be as you’d prefer them. You don’t overcome a challenge by criticizing every improvisation and adaptation as tyranny, hypocrisy or conspiracy.

It’s been a long pandemic. It’s not over yet. But we just spent a week in a warm, welcoming, far-off tropical paradise. We came back safe and healthy. That was made possible by vaccines, boosters, good masks and good sense. Life’s not back to normal just yet, but it’s closer every day we put in the work to get there.

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Fully vaccinated and boosted, Joe Killian and his wife traveled nearly 5,000 miles to spend a week Hawai‘i.