I was supposed to be wandering the white-sand beaches of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico this week. Before that, I was supposed to be exploring Italy’s fascinating island of Sicily.
But where am I? At home in Arizona, working during what was intended to be first one dream trip, and then another.
I, like countless others around the world, have opted to cancel my recent travel plans. The reason, as most everyone can guess: the growing threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Just to be clear, I’m not complaining. I’m grateful to be healthy enough to work and glad that I have a job to turn to in these uncertain times.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t agonize over my decisions to cancel my trips. For much of the past month and a half, I have felt a knot in my stomach just thinking about my upcoming trips.
Ultimately, my decisions came down to two related questions: What is the responsible thing to do? And would it be irresponsible to forge ahead?
Here’s how I worked it out.
While the decision for one of my cancellations turned out to be fairly clear-cut in the end, it was anything but obvious in the beginning.
In August 2019, I signed up for a March 2020 travel writers’ conference in Catania, Sicily. Over the next six months or so, I eagerly researched Sicily -- a place I have never visited before -- and even tried to learn a bit of Italian. The prospect of sampling arancine and cannoli in the street markets of Catania was irresistible.
By late January, however, I began hearing troubling news about the new coronavirus and its impact in China. When I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Vancouver in early February, we discussed my upcoming Sicily trip. Our conclusion at the time was that the virus probably wouldn’t affect my plans.
The threat seemed far away, and none of the other similar viruses over the years had thwarted my travel plans.
Still, I kept a close eye on the Facebook page for my Sicily trip, and things continued to worsen. First, the cases of coronavirus were limited to Northern Italy -- far from the southern island of Sicily.
But then there were a few cases reported in Palermo, just a few hours from Catania. Fellow conference registrants began posting questions about whether the conference would go on.
By late February, I was consulting with friends about my trip and getting two distinct responses. On one side were the people who were telling me, “You’ve got to live your life,” or “Just wear travel gloves, and you’ll be fine.”
But on the other side were questions about what I would do if I got sick or quarantined indefinitely in a foreign country. I watched with horror as those first cruise ships were blocked from coming home because of coronavirus cases. It made me wonder how I could weather such a blow -- either to my health or to my personal finances.
Then, on March 2, the event promoters made the decision for me: The Catania conference would be postponed indefinitely.
With that, I felt somewhat at peace. I immediately canceled my flights and notified the press-trip organizers that I wouldn’t be traveling to Sicily in March.
And as the situation in Italy deteriorated in the following weeks, I felt overwhelming relief that the conference organizers had postponed when they did, saving me and hundreds of other attendees the nightmare of trying to get home in the midst of the widespread travel bans that followed.
Is U.S. Travel Safe?
The decision to cancel my trip to Florida was a bit more difficult.
Still disappointed about the Sicily cancellation, I decided to salvage at least part of my vacation by booking a short trip to a cool alternative destination. Florida seemed like a solid plan. After all, travel within the United States was still safe.
At least, that was the prevailing attitude in early March.
But just as it had in Italy, the problem kept growing in the U.S.
I watched the news obsessively and began wondering if any travel was smart during the rapidly changing climate. I read lengthy threads on social media in which people who were planning even low-key road trips were criticized for the possibility of spreading the virus to those who were more vulnerable.
But there were no known cases of coronavirus in my community, and I had booked flights that skirted the largest trouble areas. I’ll admit there was a bit of “I just want to get away from it all on a beautiful beach” involved in my reasoning.
Over the past week, I wavered between thinking I would go if I remained healthy and wondering whether I should chance it.
What’s The Responsible Thing To Do?
But again, there was that overriding concern: Would it be irresponsible to go?
This past weekend proved to be a watershed moment.
Governments all over the U.S. began banning the gathering of groups of 250, 50, and even 10 people. Large cities like San Francisco mandated that people stay home except for essential errands. In Arizona, the governor urged people to postpone or cancel events. My local city government announced that it would do all of its public business in an online format, and the local school district canceled classes for two weeks.
So, as I contemplated whether it would be responsible to fly to Florida, there was really only one answer: No!
Not only would I have difficulty staying a safe distance away from others on the flight, but once in Florida, I would be stressed at the prospect that my return flight home to Arizona could be affected. And once in Florida, would I really be able to enjoy the full experience of the Gulf of Mexico, with attractions and beaches closing down, and restaurants and hotels possibly soon to follow?
On many levels, taking the chance on the trip just wasn’t worth the risk of getting infected or quarantined, or unknowingly carrying the virus across the country.
So, once again I started unpacking rather than packing, canceling flights rather than booking, and notifying a tourism bureau that I wouldn’t be coming after all.
Needless to say, it was a blow. Even though my flights qualified for refunds under the airline’s coronavirus policies, I felt a bit robbed of two possibly once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
But for now, I’m holding out hope that travel will get back to normal in a month or two. And when it does, I’m still on board for a stroll down a Florida beach -- or a culinary adventure through Catania’s famous fish market.