Should you plan non-essential international travel during a pandemic?

Someone asked me after I got vaccinated why I got vaccinated. I have science based reasons (as a biologist, I get asked a lot)-that the technology has been around for a couple of decades, it’s been used safely for other infectious diseases and cancer, and it’s less of a risk than getting COVID. But I follow that up with a reason of universal appeal-that I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere without it. 

I’m all for people deciding for themselves whether they need to get the vaccine, but since I haven’t had the disease, as far as I know, yet, I knew it would be a deal breaker for traveling overseas. And I love to travel.

I took advantage of my vaccination status and traveled to Europe in October 2021 before Europeans were allowed into the USA for nonessential travel. The airfare was about half what it normally costs to fly on the nonstop flight from LAX to Munich, and the flight on the way over was only about 50% full. I had a row of seats to myself, and if I had not kept myself up all night watching movies, I could have slept completely horizontal. 

My European friends speculated that the flight back might be even emptier, and it was. Most passengers in my section of economy, at least solo travelers, commandeered their own row of seats. I haven’t seen a plane this empty since I flew back on a 747 from Sydney, Australia around Christmas in the late 1990s.

You can make yourself even more comfortable through a program Lufthansa calls Sleeper’s Row. For an extra fee, you get a mattress with a special seat belt to fill out the row. There were so few people on board, at check in, they didn’t bother to ask about upgrading. They didn’t even ask to look at carry-on baggage. All that mattered was your COVID and vaccination status.

I wouldn’t have traveled overseas if someone else hadn’t planned the trip. I felt overwhelmed by the unknown of COVID testing. But once on the plane, I felt free after nearly two years of lockdown madness. Even just the first few hours after landing in Munich were worth it. To visit with some friends on a warm fall afternoon in a beer garden after the 11 hour flight, eating schnitzel and drinking a cold beer within just a short time after landing. 

But the catch is it takes some extra planning to get over there today. The vaccine is an absolute requirement, although Europe is more reasonable about the origin of the immunity. If you can prove you had the disease within the last six months, European governments accept natural immunity. 

The second step is to have a Covid test within 72 hours of landing in your destination country. This can be tricky if your flight involves layovers. 

LAX performs COVID PCR testing for a turnaround time of 5 hours. I could have gotten tested in my neighborhood, but it was too much trouble guessing when I should get tested. This way the result would come through about 24 hours before I took off allowing me time to reschedule if I was positive and an extra day after I landed if I was negative. The lab in charge of the testing at the airport responded immediately to my questions and suggested a strategy for me. 

The last challenge is the forms. Yes with an “s”. On the way over, I failed to fill out the form confirming my vaccination status to enter Germany. I started it the evening before and only realized once I was at the airport that I failed because I inserted the destination country rather than the country of origin. The link did not advance me for that reason so I showed up at the airport without it. It was painful filling the form out on my phone. I almost lost my patience to the point of cancelling the trip.

Germany would let me in. My plan was to take the train from Munich into Italy and that meant another form to fill out, the Green Pass. Green Pass with an Italian accent just keeps going through my head as you must show it in all restaurants and any establishment asking for it. 

Although I got the QR code/Green Pass, it never worked. I thought it was me. One evening in a restaurant, I noticed that the scans showed the same red error sign for the customers at a neighboring table, all from northern Europe. My digital pass from my state of California and the hard copy of my vaccine status were valid substitutes, but I thought about how much junk was landing in the black hole of internet space. And furthermore, how much easier governments could follow my steps around the globe. I began to wonder when I might get messages that I was eating too much.

Not all restaurants asked for the Green Pass. And yet for some, even a negative COVID test was not sufficient. On one of my last days in Germany, in Eataly, the Italian host didn’t accept my negative COVID test I had taken moments before. It didn’t matter that I was COVID negative. He wanted to see my vaccination status. As a traveler from the USA, I wouldn’t have even been allowed into the country without an acceptable form of immunity against COVID.

Masks are required to go indoors anywhere. Cloth masks don’t count.

Some circumstances defied logic in the context of all the regulations. The airlines had controlled disembarking from the plane, a few rows at a time, but we were a crowd once we reached immigration. Masks were required to walk to your table in a restaurant and then you take them off to eat for the next two hours. 

The real worry I had before I left for Europe was managing testing for COVID while traveling. The airlines won’t let you on planes without a negative COVID test no matter the destination. Once I arrived in Europe, I discovered it’s easy to get tested there. I had some help because I have friends in the countries I visited. When we arrived in Roma, our last stop in Italy, a pharmacy performing the tests was located right across the street from our hotel. It took a couple of tries, even with my kind of OK Italian, but we got an appointment for the test without having to go online. 

In Germany, my German friends made an appointment for me online. Before my trip, I focused too much on the difficulties in scheduling a PCR test in the right window for travel. I shouldn’t have worried about scheduling a PCR test because in contrast to the USA, antigen tests are more common and sufficient. Scheduling a test is easy. In Italy, I just had to fill out a form when I arrived at the site. In Germany, all my information was submitted online. Each antigen test costs about 20USD. 

Still, it’s a new cost you have to figure in for travel. I don’t think the testing is going to go away any time soon. COVID testing is a new thriving business niche. LAX for example has PCR labs in the airport. I doubt these labs will be dismantled any time soon.

You travel to escape. Yet the topic of COVID gave me one more subject to discuss with strangers and shop owners.

One of my scientist friends working in a lab in a hospital has indelible images of the dead being wheeled out of the COVID unit to the morgue. “Anyone who thinks it was a hoax is crazy,” she said. 

A physician told me almost all of the patients currently under treatment in his institution for COVID were unvaccinated. “You can’t talk people into getting the vaccine who don’t want it,” he said, “but I can say with certainty, you don’t want to risk a severe case of the disease.” 

Vaccine hesitancy approaches the absurd in adults when you think about all the other unknowns we willingly poke our bodies with, tattoos, piercings, and even cosmetic enhancements, often at the hands of non-health care professionals. 

In Italy, artisans were allowed to continue working throughout the lockdown. A couple of shoemakers I met said it was lonely to be working while no one else was at their job or even out on the streets. While I was sitting in their work room in October, a young woman popped in and asked for a recommendation for a restaurant that other tourists wouldn’t know about. They told me it happens several times a day, but they didn’t mind because they were happy to see people now.

Even though these shoemakers didn’t have walk-in clients, the lockdowns created time to catch up on their orders. Clients they’ve had for years who could not travel to Firenze in 2020 could still order shoes to be made for them from the foot molds the shoe artisans had stored for them. One of their clients had them stamp the soles of his shoes with “Green Pass” and the year 2021 verifying that they were handmade in their shop during lockdown.

Grocery shopping took hours in Italy. A cousin of mine with two small children at home simply surrendered and ordered groceries online. The unbecoming hoarding behavior possessing Americans overtook Europeans as well. Toilet paper and yeast, but not penne lisce (the non-ridged penne), disappeared from grocery shelves in Italy. 

People are tired of the lockdowns and the regulations worldwide. A friend who is a surgeon didn’t think it would be that hard to wear a mask all the time. It was part of his job. But even he tired of masks. I told him, “It’s because you don’t wear a mask to run errands or to travel.” When I flew back from Europe, I had a mask on from 8:15 in the morning to midnight.

A woman with her granddaughter at a gelateria in Verona was happy to be free to be outdoors of her own volition and to see other humans, but adherence to the rules was not rational. She took her granddaughter to school every day, and every day, the school would ask the grandmother to show her Green Pass to pick the child up.

The owner of a leather clothing shop in Firenze was looking forward to the day when he could recognize who was saying hello to him behind the masks. We were in a chocolate shop we go to every time we are in Firenze, and it wasn’t until several minutes into our perusal of the shop that we recognized the woman who is there year after year selling the chocolates.

Some businesses were closed permanently, like a chocolate shop near the Pantheon, ruining my plans to bring the latest in exceptional chocolates home to my friends and family.

Hotels provide limited tourist information on paper in the rooms, or none at all, and many restaurants have switched completely to scanning a QR code to directly access the menu online. Breakfast buffets were no longer self-serve or eliminated entirely. One change easy to live with. I’m not above pizza for breakfast. 

Roma looked unkempt, even with so few tourists, and locals complained about it. 

Young people in Europe seem more open to getting vaccinated. Italy had already reached a vaccination rate of over 80% in October. Yet the day we arrived in Firenze was the first for protests against the vaccine mandate for workers. The man who owned a toy store in Roma hired one of his former customers, a barely teenager, to help him in the shop because he was unable to hire back the adults. “The government is paying people half their salaries and people seem fine with that,” he said.

While many businesses had closed, those that survived used the free time to renovate. The hotel we stay at in Roma was completely redone. But some of the same people were still employed there.

The most sane commentary I heard on COVID came from a taxi driver in Bologna. “Pazzia! E una pazzia!” he repeated over and over again. “It’s a mania!” “Lunacy!” I only asked him about COVID not toilet paper. He gave a brief lecture on what he thought was really killing Americans, to put it nicely, our eating habits. “Americans are drinking too many giant Cokes,” he said.

The harsh truth. We got it completely backwards during the pandemic in the USA. Closing beaches, closing outdoor spaces, forcing people into their homes where we added on the pounds we knew were positively correlated with disease severity, when sunlight, fresh air and a walk might have been better for us. 

I feel like I gave the vaccine a road test. And maybe what international travel will be like for the next few years. Maybe I was lucky, but I always feel that way when I arrive back home from a trip abroad.

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