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Cheap flights and discounted Broadway tickets put everyone at risk

Should you be taking advantage of coronavirus sales? Probably not.

Maybe don’t be this man.
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Update 3/12: After this story was originally published, news broke that all Broadway shows will be canceled as of March 12. The story has been updated to reflect that, as well as to include statements from Carnival Cruises and Spirit Airlines.

On March 10, Scott Rudin, the Broadway producer of West Side Story, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lehman Trilogy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The Book of Mormon, announced that all remaining tickets for performances between March 12 and 29 would be $50. This, just as an usher tested positive for coronavirus and Broadway actors are being told to stop greeting fans at stage doors to prevent the spread of disease, and just two days before Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the closing of any public gathering of more than 500 in New York City, effectively canceling all Broadway shows.

If you’re among the few people currently in the market for live entertainment, your choices are dwindling: The NBA has suspended all games indefinitely. Late-night TV shows are filming sans audiences; concerts, movie premieres, and festivals are being canceled every day.

I would’ve loved to see a Broadway show for $50. Who’s to say I shouldn’t have taken advantage of the deal? Messages from public officials are wildly unclear and changing continually, and it’s a confusing time for Americans who’ve been trained to look for bargains while also receiving murky guidelines about how to live our lives during a pandemic.

And so a handful of companies are attempting to spin wariness to travel and gather as a prime opportunity for you, the buyer. Enter: the coronavirus discount. While businesses in most sectors likely to be affected by the disease — sports, entertainment, hotels, and restaurants — aren’t offering blowout sales (yet, anyway), the ones that are hope they’re good enough to take the risk.

“As long as New York City is open for business, its beating heart remains the Broadway stage,” Rudin said in announcing the ticket discounts. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for everyone to see a show that they otherwise might not have had easy and affordable access to. I can’t pretend that great theater is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, but in the meantime I think we could all use a few hours away from the evening news.”

The move received some criticism in the theater world. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris argued on Twitter that “a pandemic shouldn’t inspire ‘affordable’ tickets,” adding that “after YEARS of the most successful commercial theatre makers throwing up their hands and saying ‘there’s nothing we can do abt it.’ It’s startling to see a clearance sale being presented as a gift in the face of [skull emoji] and economic collapse.”

The economy at large has taken a hit: The market dropped to a record low, and sectors like entertainment and travel, particularly vulnerable to mandates like “social distancing,” are taking hits that could cause negative ripple effects along the global supply chain.

Consider airlines. Flight costs have dropped considerably, with cross-country flights going for under $100, and trans-Atlantic flights for as low as $200. As Terry Nguyen reported, airlines are offering travelers who’ve booked within the past month the chance to change or cancel flights without fees as another way to incentivize wary would-be travelers. Spirit Airlines, for instance, reportedly sent an email to customers with the subject heading “Never a better time to fly.” The company then sent out an apology, writing that the email “was written prior to the current situation and unfortunately sent. We are closely monitoring COVID-19 and taking precautions to keep our Guests & Team Members safe.”

Cruise ships are another danger zone in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, during which a Diamond Princess luxury cruise ship in Japan was quarantined after a passenger tested positive for the virus; another cruise ship was also held off the coast of California for several days after passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, due to customers’ understandable (and potentially lifesaving) reluctance to book cruise vacations, travel companies are offering financial incentives like free drinks and wildly low prices to change their minds.

Carnival, the parent company of Princess Cruises, offered guests drink credits, spa treatments, and excursions of between $100 and $200 per cabin if they don’t cancel their cruises set to depart between March 6 and May 31, Bloomberg reported. Then, days later, Princess announced that it was suspending all global operations for 60 days.

In a statement to Vox, Carnival said:

We have just opened our terminals for the five departures scheduled for today and will be embarking those guests this afternoon. We continue to operate. This is an unprecedented time in the cruise industry and the world. We remain focused on protecting the health and safety of our guests.

Cruise prices across the industry have dropped, too, and despite a warning from the State Department urging US citizens not to travel on cruise ships, plenty of people appear happy to take advantage. One Florida State University sophomore who will embark on a cruise to Mexico this week told the Daily Beast that rather than eat the fee, he hopes to “hit the sweet spot” — that is, travel to a location where coronavirus isn’t as much of a threat. When asked if he thought it was a good plan, he replied, “Honestly, no.”

Said a 27-year-old who saved $200 on a flight from Atlanta to Connecticut to visit her sick grandmother, “If I die, I die.”

The quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked on February 19, 2020, in Yokohama, Japan.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Some companies are employing seemingly shady tactics out of desperation. Leaked emails from managers at Norwegian Cruise Line show how they instructed their sales team to pressure customers to lie about the dangers of coronavirus on cruise ships. “The Coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise,” said one of the recommended talking points.

Plenty of others are taking safety measures seriously or offering need-based discounts. The NCAA announced that March Madness games would be played audience-free. Many publications have removed the paywall from their coronavirus articles to curb misinformation, and other software companies are offering remote work services for free.

But the coronavirus outbreak may not be short, and its impact on the economy may not be small. Companies will likely fail, people will be laid off, and it’s difficult to pass judgment on the measures people take to avoid losing their jobs.

It’s also almost impossible to discern proper coronavirus protocol, in part because guidance is often confusing, contradictory, constantly changing, or all three. If a cruise company tells you the coronavirus isn’t an issue in the Caribbean and you haven’t heard otherwise, who’s to say a cheap vacation is a bad idea? When faced with a too-good-to-pass-up flight deal to visit a friend or family member who lives across the country or a Broadway show on your bucket list, do you take it? No one else can make that decision for you, but one thing is clear: The people who didn’t have the money to spend on a flight or a musical in the first place are the ones weighing whether to take the risk.

Almost everyone is now having to contend with what kinds of risks we are or aren’t willing to face. In an essay for Vice, Aaron Gordon weighs the prospect of traveling to his nephew’s birthday party for a weekend trip where there will be children and older people around. “The advice being offered by public officials, ostensibly via health experts, about whether to keep doing the mundane activities that make up most of my life has been maddeningly vague and with no clear directive to my own life,” he writes.

What is clear, however, is that businesses hoping to profit off this moment of uncertainty and anxiety should not be the ones making these decisions for us. Until our leaders and public officials give citizens a clear mandate on how to reduce the damage of the coronavirus, all of us will continue to be faced with temptations to put our health at risk for the sake of a deal.

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