(The feature picture for this post is one I took of JFK’s arrival hall around 9pm EDT on Friday March 13, 2020. Le Monde’s cover picture for that morning was almost identical).
This is my first opportunity to write about the excitement of traveling back from Switzerland to the USA in the lead-up to the current travel ban. We were scheduled to be in Europe from 3/12-3/17, and had been watching the CDC travel alerts for our destinations closely. Our targets were not even level 1 alerts right up to the moment we stepped onto our last flight segment (JFK-ZRH). We landed, turned on our phones and … pandemonium, as the Presidential announcement had been made while we were in the air. As a consequence of the announcement, Schengen had been upgraded to Level 3. The border police officer asked us “what about this travel ban, can you return?” (She looked panicked and frazzled). We said “Doesn’t apply to US citizens” and we were stamped in.
It was Thursday March 12th, around 9am local time in Zurich, and we were tired and jetlagged and a bit hung over from champagne en route. At this time, the ban was only on Schengen countries, and explicitly excluded the UK/Ireland, so I started looking at changing our return itinerary either to come back through London, or come back to Canada and take a domestic flight from there. Those fares were around $6500 each, or totally unavailable, so “no”. Then I found a flight at 9:40am Friday that would get us from Zurich back to JFK – not all the way home to Indiana – a few hours before the midnight deadline for new restrictions. We discussed it for a few minutes, resigned ourselves to losing our R&R time, and booked it for 16,000 miles and $43 cash (total). Canceled our hotels (~$1200 lost – though maybe we’ll get refunds later), booked a new hotel for 1 night in Zurich, and took the train from the airport to the Hauptbahnhof, walked to the hotel, and checked in to dump our luggage. The clerk there was from Florence, and telling us about his elderly family there and how he couldn’t go to their funerals if they succumb to the virus.
All things considered, we had a pretty good one-day sojourn in Zurich. There were a lot of things I’d have liked to revisit, but we had a currywurst at Calypso (see above), we saw the Rathaus and Lake Zurich, we visited the Cana cigar bar and the Wolf Bierhall, and of course besides buying some souvenirs we had fondue.
The atmosphere in Zurich was more subdued (and less foot traffic) than normal, but there were certainly no scenes of panic buying and so forth. Lines and stocks at Migros, Coop, Kiosk etc. (the first two are supermarkets, the latter is a convenience store) were very normal.
We had been seeing mixed, conflicting and largely chaotic reports of the developing travel “ban” situation – initially, remember, it was announced as a simple 30-day ban and it wasn’t until later that the details about exemptions (US citizens, permanent residents and the like) started to emerge. Given this, we knew that pandemonium was a certainty once the deadline passed, but we were unsure what we’d actually face on arrival. However, goodbye Zurich after just one night…
When we reached JFK, we went straight to the Global Entry booths, passports in hand. The booths took our pictures, and immediately printed tickets with our names, DOBs, flight number etc. on them. No need even to scan the passport; that CBP facial recognition system works, and it takes less than a second. While we were waiting on line to clear Customs, a CBP agent walked down the line, took our tickets, asked where we were arriving from and if we had anything to declare (“liquor, candy, chocolate, soda”) and waved us out of the clearance hall into baggage claim. After a fairly long wait our bags arrived, and we walked out. You will absolutely not have this painless experience today, if you attempt the same thing.
That got us into the country, but still 900 miles from home. I had rented a car for two days (Friday 9pm to Sunday 9pm) and so we had a 15-odd-hour drive. Because of the almost complete lack of sleep and somewhat significant stress, we had to stay Friday night at a hotel in Bethlehem, PA, and Saturday night at another hotel in Ohio. On the long, long drive we stopped at a rural Giant Eagle to pick up a few essentials if they were in stock (and yes they had disinfectants and toilet paper, though not much of either). Around this time we started to see reports of the utter confusion faced by arriving passengers. Totally predictable long lines (long lines trapped cheek to jowl with potential virus carriers, by the way). I can confidently say that the decision to book next day emergency return to the fastest Stateside destination was the best decision we’ve ever made.
It is so hard to comprehend the questions people are asking us now.
Q: “Should I go to Europe next week? I’m a US citizen; I can get back, it’s fine”
A: “NO. The situation is changing hour by hour and even at the best case, you’ll be required to self-isolate for 14 days. If you happen to test positive, it’ll be more like 30 days from last symptom. And if you get thermally diagnosed at the border – EVEN IF YOU ONLY HAVE A REGULAR COLD, you’re not going to your home; you’re going to a military base. Also by the time you get there, most if not all European countries are going to be on lockdown with essentially everything of interest to tourists closed”.
Q: “Should I go to Mexico/Jamaica/Canada/wherever in a couple of weeks?”
A: “NO. In the time since the US travel restrictions were first announced, a) they’ve been extended to UK/Ireland, b) Mexico has closed its border, c) numerous European countries have gone into complete lockdown Italy style and/or closed their borders to noncitizens, d) Canada has closed its border to noncitizens (with a “for the moment” exception for US citizens, inter alia). Again, this situation is evolving hour by hour and you should work on the assumption that any border that is currently open could close at any moment.”
Q: “Should I go on a cruise this spring break?”
A: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME NOW. Even if your cruise line is still operating, the oceans are now filling up with zombie apocalypse vessels drifting from port to port being denied entry. While you’re on land, you have options. Stuck in a floating hotel, you don’t”.
Q: “Should I go to (some other state) for a break?”
A: “Maybe, but probably not a good idea. Domestic travel restrictions are already being discussed, and the nature of these is NOT clear. It could be anything from shutting down domestic air/rail travel for a couple of weeks to U.S. Army checkpoints with M16s and M249s blocking every state border (or even cordoning off individual cities). Besides, everything will be closed. I’d say if the cabin fever is truly severe, and you have a destination like hiking, camping or beach lolling, AND you are OK with a combination of takeout and cooking your own food, AND you are OK with driving, AND you are OK with a small but nonzero risk that a domestic quarantine border might suddenly appear between you and home – it’s possibly an acceptable risk equation. I would certainly try to avoid it, even as a road trip, before the end of April though – and I would doubly not even think of booking air travel right now, if only because there’s a very high probability of flight cancellations”.
Q: “Should I buy a gun?”
A: “Errrrr… Well, I guess it’s a serious question, serious answer. It’s probably too late now. There have been round the block lines at gun stores, and many places have stopped selling ammunition either due to stock levels or other reasons. Depending on where you live, it might or might not be “useful” to have a firearm at your disposal, but if you’re asking this question now then you don’t already have experience with firearms, and there’s no time to acquire it. Overall I’d suggest that your resources are better spent on essential items for a 2 to 4 week period. IMHO as a firearm owner, though not self-defense expert, I think it’s more likely you’ll be under stress and mistakenly shoot a family member or innocent stranger than that you’ll successfully defend your castle against invaders trying to steal your toilet paper and canned soup”.
So, we’re in self-isolation now, coming out Friday March 27th – God willing. Luckily, we have a good supply of food and drink, and paper products…
More news from the front as it occurs.