Last weekend, I flew on a plane for the first time in over a year. Armed with the allowed amount of hand sanitizer (TSA now allows one bottle up to 12 ounces), multiple face masks and disinfecting wipes, I boarded my American Airlines flight bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, my final destination being Orlando, Florida. Before I got on the plane I was nervous. For a year New Englanders have heard horror stories about the COVID-19 restrictions or lack thereof in Southern and Midwestern states. Hence, you can imagine my displeasure in discovering that my flight to North Carolina and subsequently Florida were so full that I had to check my bag at the gate.
How were passengers expected to social distance when we’re forced to sit three people per row in an enclosed place for an extended period of time? How are we honestly expected to stop the spread of COVID-19 when one can hop on a plane to a Southern state where masks and quarantining are not required but simply ‘recommended’? I find it incredibly frustrating that some places in the United States are proceeding with very few coronavirus restrictions at all when New Englanders have been attempting to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus for almost a year.
Now before we go on let me be clear, I did not have a choice in the mode of transportation or the destination. I work for a dance competition which requires that I travel for at least five weekends of the dance season. I did not choose to go to Florida nor was I traveling for leisure. As someone who has high-risk relatives the severity of COVID-19 is not foreign to me. In fact, I have made a commitment to get tested at least once a week regardless of the cost or the time getting a test might take.
With that being said, I do think it's possible that many other people on this flight were in a similar position to me, meaning they were traveling for work or had some other important commitment they had to fulfill. Nonetheless, it was abundantly clear the second I stepped off the plane in Charlotte that for most travelers that was not the case and if North Carolina was bad, Orlando was a hundred times worse. Little did I know that I was about to experience the culture shock of my life.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina was like a step back in time. Social distancing was not practice that seemed enforced or even familiar to the people passing through and many were walking around the airport with their masks below their chins. I even witnessed one passenger pull her mask down to cough into her elbow. The COVID-19 mitigation practices that I had become accustomed to up north did not exist and I found myself completely flabbergasted. When I arrived in Orlando my experience was similar if not worse. The one time I ventured somewhere that wasn't my hotel or the competition venue, nearly everyone in the grocery store was not wearing masks. One dancer informed me that she had been attending dance competitions and conventions in Florida since as early as last October. In Rhode Island and most of Massachusetts, all competitions and conventions are still cancelled.
In Boston, passengers are required to sit six feet apart in the gate areas and all restaurants in the airport are closed. In fact, while waiting for my flight back to Boston from North Carolina, I noticed passengers waiting for the flight to Boston had taken it upon themselves to social distance sitting nearly six feet apart throughout the gate area. Passengers in the gate area waiting for a flight to Nashville were sitting shoulder to shoulder, most with their masks pulled down or below their noses.
It seems unfathomable that one country could have such different ways of managing the pandemic, especially when the solution seems so simple; a uniform, federal mitigation strategy. Yet I am not naive enough to believe that those so insistent on professing ‘state’s rights’ would agree to such a strategy it might be time to engage in more unpopular strategies such as mandatory masks in public places. 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 over the span of a year. That is more than those who died during the Civil War and nearly double the amount of Americans that died in World War II. It is time to develop a united strategy.
In addition, airplanes and airports should be required to comply with social distancing guidelines and not be able to disregard them for the sake of sales. Traveling should not be an experience in which passengers feel unsafe and crammed in an enclosed space with random people at 3,600 feet. That definitely was not my idea of leisure.