“Do you have gloves?” the driver asked, placing our suitcases on the curb at Newark Liberty International Airport. When we replied in the negative, he grabbed a box sitting on the front seat and offered them with an outstretched arm.
My eyes welled up as I pulled on the blue nitrile protection. Then tears began to spill uncontrollably, saturating my cotton mask as I entered the terminal, sobbing.
His kind gesture triggered a release of emotion that had been building as my husband and I rode to the airport. A sheet of plastic, held in place with tape and pushpins, separated us in the backseat from the car-service driver up front. After confirming our destination, airport and airline, we traveled in uneasy silence. Spewing no more spittle than absolutely necessary during 45 minutes in this enclosed space reduced the potential for transmitting the coronavirus that any one of us might be carrying. That was our tacit understanding.
New York was on the verge of reopening. This was the first time in nearly three months that we had left Brooklyn. Like so many other New Yorkers, we had been socially isolating since stay-at-home orders went into effect on March 22.
Our greatest deprivation during that period was not being able to spend time with our son, Jack, who lives alone in Denver. A recent college graduate, he hadn’t been back to New York since Thanksgiving. Our late-March trip to see him was canceled when the country shut down and almost all airline traffic was halted.
Jack’s career dream, to become a sports journalist or to work in a related field, went on hold as games were canceled. He seemed to be productive, blogging – especially about the effect of Covid-19 on college athletics and professional sports. But we couldn’t read between the lines. All we knew was that coping with the pandemic was taking every ounce of our own emotional resources. And we had many more years of life experience.
Until then we had prided ourselves on not being helicopter parents, but by mid-May we were preoccupied to the point of distraction. The first thing we did each morning was to check our phones to see whether any text messages had landed from him overnight.
As Jack’s 23rd birthday approached, we proposed an early-June visit to celebrate. We could rent a condo in Vail for a two-day getaway, sandwiched between two additional nights, at a Denver hotel near his apartment. The idea was met with an enthusiastic response. Of course that meant getting on a plane. But in our minds this was essential travel.
In the age of Covid-19, our hometown airport, which we think of as the embarkation point for joyous adventures, more closely resembled an operating theater. Signage, like that now seen in food stores, marked the distance we should keep from other passengers. As we boarded the plane, a flight attendant handed us a vacuum-packed Purell hand wipe. And in lieu of beverage service, the in-flight snack, of pretzels, cookies and bottled water, was distributed in a cellophane bag.
The most unnerving part of the trip consisted of the nearly four hours, each way, that we were airborne on United Airlines. Like other carriers, it has announced measures being taken to disinfect planes and promote social distancing. But the operative word here is “promote.” Publicity about middle seats left empty, in three-across seating, turned out to be an urban legend. If an airline can sell that seat, it won’t pass up the opportunity.
The day before our departure, United notified us by text that our flight was “fairly full,” and gave us the opportunity to “consider other options” with no change fee.
Other options like what? Already we were scheduled to fly in and out of Newark, rather than LaGuardia or JFK, because, at the time we booked, it was the only nonstop flight. From other airports we would have needed to change planes in Chicago, nearly doubling our travel time and, we figured, augmenting the health risks.
En route to Denver the middle seat between us was assigned to a passenger who shared loudly that he was making a connecting flight to Las Vegas. His vacation there had been interrupted when the casinos shut down, and he was going back for eight days to pick up where he left off.
Our gamble was of another variety. The legal term “assumption of risk” comes to mind. It describes the decision to take certain action, understanding the physical injury that may result. When you assume a risk, the law bars you from getting compensated for any negative consequences.
This principle, familiar to first-year law students, is baked into the “informed consent” forms that we sign when we undergo surgery and various medical procedures. It’s also the foundation for waivers of liability required as a prerequisite to an assortment of recreational activities, from zip-lining and scuba diving to jungle safaris. During the transition to reopening after Covid-related shutdowns, assumption of risk may turn up in many more contexts as businesses, including employers, seek to avoid lawsuits.
After the plane doors closed on our flight to Denver, we spotted a way to rid ourselves of the middle-seat passenger. Both he, and the other traveler involved, were amenable. But that didn’t solve the problem of passive-aggressive strangers, on the plane and in airports, who seemed hell-bent on making a statement by not wearing a mask. This despite signs posted all over both airports saying masks are mandatory there, and advance notice to passengers that they are required onboard.
Flight crew, whose stray comments conveyed their gratitude to be working, made little or no effort to control those who didn’t comply. Boarding by row, from the back of the plane, was orderly, but deplaning was only slightly less chaotic than usual.
The day after our return, United announced that, going forward, passengers would be asked a series of health questions as they check in, most notably whether they’ve been diagnosed with Covid-19 during the past 21 days. Rumbles continue, still with no action, that the Transportation Security Administration may require temperature checks. Good luck with all that.
Back in New York and back to social isolation, we have ample time to reflect on our first flight in the age of Covid. We wonder whether it will lead to forever cleaner airports and planes, the way terrorism changed security measures. In about two weeks we plan to get a Covid test. Though we have no regrets about the risks we took, we can measure them only in hindsight.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.