From Fiji to LAX during a pandemic: Here’s what I experienced
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By now, for us here in the U.S. and in fact for much of the world, you should know the drill. Social distancing is the name of the game to stem the spread of COVID-19. That means limiting your flying — domestically or internationally — unless necessary. Welcome to the new normal.
With each passing day, countries around the world are enacting rules to restrict the flow of movement. It almost feels like every hour, on the hour, there are new entry restrictions, quarantine guidelines or drastic but necessary measures put into place to flatten the curve of coronavirus.
It’s a lot to take in and it can be overwhelming at times to be constantly consumed by coronavirus news (here’s what you need to know).
A trip started before the pandemic
Late last week, a mass influx of travelers returned to the U.S. from Europe after the Trump Administration imposed new entry restrictions. Immigration lines at airports around the country became mass crowds where some waited more than five hours — and thereby also undermined any effort to maintain some level of social distancing.
#BREAKING: Passengers stuck in long lines for immigration at @DFWAirport tell us there are no offers of hand sanitizer, gloves, or masks from U.S. Customs / Immigration. Travelers say they’ve had no screenings of temp yet and no one following #coronavirus protocols. pic.twitter.com/9viCnWdncz
— Jason Whitely (@JasonWhitely) March 15, 2020
In the last couple of days, those crowds have thinned as more routes and entire airlines are suspended, and if it was anything like my experience arriving into the U.S. via Los Angeles International (LAX) March 17, getting into the country was too easy.
My experience abroad
For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Australia and most recently, Fiji. When I left my home in New York City two weeks ago for an already-planned trip, I was closely monitoring — but not overly concerned — with the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. At that point, there was only one reported case of the virus in the city.
However in a matter of days, as we know, things took a drastic turn. My position on COVID-19 quickly took a 180 from “Hey, we should keep tabs on this thing but still travel” to “Hold up, get home and stay home.”
By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) announced coronavirus was a pandemic, and country after country was hitting the panic button, I was already in Fiji.
On the bright side, there have been zero cases of the virus (as of March 18) on any one of the 300+ Fijian islands. And since I was hopping around from one remote island to the next — you can’t get much more remote than visiting the island where “Cast Away” was filmed — I barely interacted with others.
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Smiling my way through an incredibly bleak week around the world. “I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” — Chuck aka Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” (Yes, this is where the movie was filmed. No, Wilson was not found.)
A post shared by Chris Dong (@thechrisflyer) on
In the end, I convinced myself that I was probably in the best-case scenario of social distancing — being in an isolated paradise during a pandemic. However, I was still anxious to get home and to board my Fiji Airways flight. With each passing day, there was the risk that coronavirus could suddenly arrive on Fiji’s shores. It was more a matter of when, not if.
The dramatic rise in virus cases happened in the U.S, Italy and elsewhere around the world, so it could very well happen in Fiji, too. And if that were to occur, I could be trapped with no easy means home.
Returning to LAX
Before my flight from Nadi International Airport, security officials asked me run-of-the-mill security questions about packing my bag, bringing food items home, etc. There were no questions regarding my travel.
Onboard the flight from Fiji to Los Angeles, the cabin crew gave each passenger a health form to fill out that asked several questions about your, well, health along with answering “yes” or “no” about any recent travel to several “higher risk” countries.
At the bottom of this form was a section for health screeners to note your temperature. Once at LAX, I immediately noticed how quiet the arrivals area of Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) was — usually bustling on a weekday afternoon.
I was delighted to see several hand sanitizer stations on the walk from the arrival gate to the customs and border protection area. Unfortunately, only half of them actually had any sanitizer that could be dispensed.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if my Global Entry access would even work, or if I would be subjected to additional health checks or questioning considering I transited in (but did not enter) Tokyo two weeks prior.
Not only did my Global Entry work at the kiosk, not a single person asked me where I had traveled. Nor did anyone check my temperature or any CBP officer wear a mask. And most surprising of all, remember that health form that I filled out? Well, it became a souvenir from my trip because nobody collected it.
In fact, except for the emptier than normal TBIT and one poster about COVID-19, you likely would have had no idea the world was in the midst of a pandemic. There have been similar reports in recent days, but by now, I expected a more concerted effort to suppress the spread of the virus.
Arrived to LAX from Fiji and…
1. A health form was distributed onboard my flight but not collected
2. Nobody asked where I had traveled to
3. No temperature screening conducted
4. Half the hand sanitizer stations were empty
— Chris Dong (@thechrisflyer) March 17, 2020
While I know Fiji is not on the list of countries that the U.S. has on its radar for coronavirus, the extremely lax entry process at LAX was a bit worrisome. To contrast, when entering Fiji, officials checked every incoming passenger’s temperature and provided a phone number to call in case coronavirus symptoms developed.
From stepping off the plane with Global Entry to being landslide, the entire process took just five to 10 minutes.
With the risk of more flight cancellations and wholesale shutdowns of airlines and borders, now may be a good time to consider cutting that trip abroad short. If you’re planning on entering the U.S. in the next few days, this may give you some idea of what to expect. Of course, with everything COVID-19 related, things change fast.
While there’s no guarantee of such a quick and (too) easy entry procedure like I had, one thing is pretty certain — once you get back home from your flight, stay put.
Featured image by Fiji Airways
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