In South Florida, a normal emergency looks like a column of swirling wind. Hurricanes are our definition of disaster preparation.
But the COVID-19 coronavirus is redefining what an emergency means, and interrupting life is ways many of us couldn’t imagine just a few weeks ago.
Last week, my family made the decision to cancel a spring break vacation to Yosemite we’d been planning for more than a year. But before I could even confirm the cancellation, call the park lodge and scrap the San Francisco hotel, a more pressing matter came up: getting my two kids home from college after their schools decided to shutter campuses.
COVID-19 means simple things — like lowering your airplane seat tray table — can seem risky. I wrote this from home because I've been told not to come into the office. It also means big things — like a freshman year in college — suddenly gets cut short.
Instead of studying for midterms, my kids are scrambling to pack up their rooms and find flights amid a fast-changing travel landscape.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that crowded settings — like airplanes —increase the risk of exposure. Last week JetBlue banned a passenger for life when he flew into West Palm Beach without disclosing that he'd been tested for the virus. He found out mid-air he was positive.
Now, domestic travel restrictions are a possibility. Over the weekend, Governor Ron DeSantis urged the president to set limits, arguing that Florida is seeing cases that come from other places like New York.
My friend Lola Bellaflores-Rivera sent her son a two-screen text message with a list of things she wanted him to do as he traveled home from his college in Maryland over the weekend.
“Make sure you have the mask,” she wrote to him. And two pairs of gloves: one pair for the Uber ride to the airport and one for the airport. Also: garbage bags to cover his backpack. Purell or bleach wipes for the plane seat and tray table. Credit cards (no cash exchanging hands). And keep taking the Vitamin C she’d asked him to start a week ago. She also called him later to make sure he wore a hoodie to cover his head.
“You're imagining, like a little movie, of how he's going to get there, and everything he has to go through, to make it home safe,” she said.
The list might seem extreme, but Rovira has a weakened immune system because she takes medicine for her psoriatic arthritis.
“So I'm like, wait a second, if something happens to me, that’s even worse,” she said when we Skyped each other.
The CDC has warned that people who travel may need to take time off work to quarantine themselves. Presumably, that means homebound college students too, who would have to separate themselves from their families.
All these warnings have understandably increased passenger worry.
“It’s just a new, unique situation,” said Manuel Lubian, who opened Futura Travel in Miami on April Fool’s Day in 1975.
“I have been through the Gulf War, the second Gulf War, [the Sept. 11 attacks] and we have survived all of them. And now we have a new challenge,” he said.
Lubian arranges trips all over Europe, along with cruises. He said he hasn’t booked a new trip in three weeks. Instead, his clients have been calling to ask if travel is safe.
“I cannot give an opinion because things are changing every day,” he said. “With a hurricane, you go to the store, you get your stuff, the hurricane [causes] damage or no damage. You fix it and two, three weeks later we’re back to normal. Now this. This is new.”
It's hard to know what travel will look like in the future. When I called my daughter to ask about her plans to come home, she asked if she should just book a one-way ticket, rather than a round-trip flight like she normally would. She and her brother are both freshmen. She’s in Florida. Her brother, who’s still trying to get home, is outside Boston.
She’d been looking forward to a pig dissection in her biology class when news surfaced that in-person classes might be cancelled. For all their hard work and late nights chasing GPAs and doing projects to get into the colleges they wanted to attend, having the year cut short seems especially disappointing. She’d been accepted into a summer fellowship with the Smithsonian. She’s not sure where that stands.
On Friday, my husband sent her an essay from the New Yorker by poet Dan Chiasson.
It’s “about the coronavirus and the ruptured narrative of campus life,” she told me by phone.
I read it over the weekend. Chiasson, who teaches at Wellesley College, said he arranges his spring semester like a story, with the poems he’s teaching serving as chapters that lead his students out of winter and into spring.
“In the spring semester, you can flip the hourglass and start to monitor, poem by poem, the first cracks in the earth, the little gains made every day upon darkness and cold. Probably every student I have ever taught has heard me quote Stevens, in “The Poems of Our Climate,” on “the end of winter when afternoons return,” he writes.
He also describes campus life and the milestones — spring break, holding classes outside, dating, and commencement — that can shape each student’s own story. For many, campuses also provide a safe space and a place, maybe for the first time, to be themselves.
Now, he says, it's not just campuses, but communities that no longer have the normal axis of work and school, or spring break and graduation.
This was a moment when our kids were supposed to be out in the world, on their own, for the first time. Instead, they’re coming back home to hunch in front of their computers, taking classes online.