One nation under quarantine: when travel became the great divider

Jul 1, 2020

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Whether it was gathering with family for a holiday barbecue, hopping on a cruise ship in Miami with friends, or crossing the globe to better understand and absorb a different culture, travel is supposed to be a great uniter.

Right now? Not so much.

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COVID-19 is doing its best to force people apart in a million different ways. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines have separated families and friends. And that’s to say nothing of front-line workers who are spending time apart from their parents and children to protect them from transmission. The toll for people who’ve been sickened? Even worse. And somehow, even your summer vacation — which is supposed to be a blissful break from everyday troubles — has become divisive, too.

Related: These are the global travel restrictions by country

After a devastating COVID-19 outbreak on the West Coast and in the Northeastern United States in March and April, states across the country’s Sun Belt, from Florida to California, are suddenly seeing huge spikes in the number of reported cases. As it did months ago, it’s had sudden and serious repercussions that impact travel.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Visitors from 16 states with high infection rates, including Texas and Florida, now need to quarantine for 14 days upon entering New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. For those who live in the tri-state area, leaving for a vacation can also have consequences. New Yorkers who visit heavily impacted states, for example, could lose their right to paid sick leave upon their return. All of this follows similar quarantine requirements in states like Maine and Hawaii, which both targeted all travelers, not just those from COVID-19 hot-spots. Maine, like New York, threatened violators with hefty fines.

Related: What to know about trip cancellation and interruption protection offered by select credit cards

Between these two outbreaks, there had been a moment when travel seemed more feasible. States were opening businesses and heralding creative plans for salvaging summer. The message was clear: if we were careful, we could also be hopeful. There were National Parks that allowed for ample social distancing. Beaches drew literal lines in the sand to keep people six feet apart. There were curbside restaurants and ad hoc drive-in movie theaters. Maybe things wouldn’t be the same as before, but you could make a trip of it.

Related: Should I travel? Advice for the coronavirus outbreak

The worsening situation feels both more dangerous and more disappointing. If you love to travel, there are few bigger let-downs than having to cancel a trip you’ve been dreaming about. In this moment, we’re all finding ourselves canceling or indefinitely postponing even straightforward vacations that are relatively close to home.

Our deeper divisions, the ones that transcend state and international borders, aren’t helping. There are the basic difficulties of traveling safely with anyone from another household. (Do you all get tested? Do you quarantine from each other, or all together, or both? Do you wear masks when you see each other? For how long? Indoors or outdoors?) And then there are the more insidious gulfs between us, the relatives who refuse to wear masks, the disagreements between friends about what distancing actually means. It’s easier to cancel a reservation at a resort in Cabo than to cancel your brother-in-law.

Related: Country-by-country guide to reopening

There is a word that some states — and groups of friends and family — are using to describe safe zones for travel and communication in a COVID-threatened world: a bubble. An official, state-defined “bubble” could eventually exist between Australia and New Zealand, and one is in place between the states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. There are personal bubbles, too, carefully developed between like-minded friends and family members who are trying to stay connected in precarious times. Within these zones, there are no quarantines, no endless temperature checking. They create a facsimile of normalcy, a thing that allows for travel, but only within limits. With the ban of U.S. travelers from the EU, that region has become a kind of bubble itself, and we are officially, unceremoniously on the outside of it.

Related: Airlines and hotels offering full refunds in response to coronavirus outbreak

So how do we get ourselves back in? The answer is both simple and wildly daunting: beat the virus. Vaccinate it, or, until then, isolate it out of existence. Cover your face. Wash your hands. Minimize risk to yourself and those around you. This is how we’ll all get back — not into any single restrictive bubble, but into the world.

Related:  Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

For those of us constantly craving new landscapes and experiences — a meal on the other side of the planet, a mountaintop six states away, a deep sense of interconnectedness — it feels, right now, like a very long journey. But who, of anyone, is better equipped to appreciate and learn from that, to find meaning in all of its winding turns, than a traveler.

Related: EU bans Americans so where can we go? 

Featured image by Alistair Berg and Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images.

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