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What “home for the holidays” means during a pandemic

Without specific guidance around whether — and how — to travel, some find themselves playing a game of risk roulette.

An illustration of people passing each other, as if at an airport, with masks on and germs hovering overhead. Getty Images

Part of The Home Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Mariusz Wiecheć last visited his home country of Poland in September 2019, and in hindsight, he regrets staying for only a week. It was barely enough time to adjust his sleep schedule and catch up with family and old friends, but Wiecheć was resigned, he said, to the fact that “America doesn’t have enough vacation days.” Like many others, he hadn’t accounted for a dangerous virus that would send the world into lockdown and keep him from his family for nearly a year.

Six months into the pandemic, Wiecheć, who lives in Philadelphia and holds an American green card, leaped at the first chance to return to Poland. Airlines began to offer limited direct flights from New York in August, and Poland was no longer requiring citizens and their families to undergo a strict quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

“I’ve realized the importance of family and being home,” Wiecheć said in a phone interview in early September. “I miss the culture in Europe, and while I’m used to some aspects of American culture, I will always be Polish at heart.” An eight-hour international flight, then, was a risk he was willing to take: Later that month, he and his wife geared up in medical-grade masks, landed in Warsaw, got tested, and quarantined from family members until their results came through.

The isolating nature of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many people’s desires for comfort and human connection — impulses that are strongly affiliated with home and family and are likely to grow as the holidays approach. “People are getting frustrated and tired of having this basic human need — of social interaction and contact with others — suppressed and hindered,” said Michael Brein, a psychologist who specializes in travel. “In some cases, they’re becoming less vigilant and a little more careless because Covid has been going on for so long.”

And in other cases, such as Wiecheć’s, travelers simply want to head home safely. Many people live and work hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from immediate family members, and in the absence of clear directives from the government and health experts, some find themselves playing a fraught game of risk roulette. For Wiecheć and others who spoke to Vox, it has resulted in an elaborate process of quarantining and testing and hoping and worrying, all of which still seems worth it when compared to the alternative.

As we approach the colder months, public health experts are raising alarms over the likelihood of another surge of infections as people cozy up indoors instead of gathering in parks or other outdoor spaces. But there’s another reason experts and the general public are worrying about the wintertime: holiday travel. An uptick in both car and plane trips during the weekends of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day serves as a hint of what’s to come in November and December, months in which millions of Americans traditionally congregate with their loved ones. In 2019, the top leisure activity for domestic US travelers was visiting relatives, according to the US Travel Association, and that urge to visit friends and family will likely persist through 2020.

The coronavirus has derailed events, from adolescent milestones to weddings to funerals, but will Americans give up treasured end-of-year traditions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve? Across the country, large family gatherings — even those attended by relatives in the same town or county — have unwittingly turned into superspreader events, with one North Carolina party infecting 41 people from nine different families, the Charlotte Observer reported. Infectious disease experts have warned that intra-household spread is a key component in Covid-19’s transmission, despite any social distancing measures in place.

This added layer of risk among loved ones is something homebound travelers are trying to assess. Some are avoiding enclosed spaces with strangers entirely, even as airlines slash holiday airfare prices to make them cheaper than in years past. Road trips are now considered an attractive alternative: Drivers can plan for pit stops ahead of time and, if it’s a short drive, can completely avoid human contact on the road.

Christian Grand and his wife Alex, both of whom are in their early 30s, used to fly to California about 12 times a year because they have a large network of family and friends in the state. In June, they took a 1,000-mile car ride from Portland, Oregon, to Orange County, California, routing through a national park to briefly sightsee and avoid traffic.

“It’s not sustainable to stay indoors and isolate with your immediate family for months,” Grand said. “My wife Alex and I realized we needed to see our family, while taking precautions to not expose ourselves to unnecessary risk.”

They aren’t sure whether they’ll be taking any more California-bound trips this year, although the couple does feel the urge to be with family. “I have a really special place in my heart for California, although we’ve lived in Portland for seven years and have a home here,” Grand said. “As far as which one we identify as our real home, well, I couldn’t tell you.”

The Grands’ June gathering, which occurred before California’s summer spike in cases, was relatively small and consisted only of two couples and two kids, all of whom had been seriously self-isolating. “My wife doesn’t even like being around strangers at a national park, whether they are 6 feet away or not,” Grand said. “She’s just not comfortable being around people at all, and that’s our biggest challenge to navigate.”

The two set certain social boundaries ahead of time, including not going out to eat or closely interacting with others beyond their six-person cluster. While that meant they weren’t able to see extended family, the visit was much needed and satisfied a social itch, according to Grand.

“We are in much better spirits, which is why we chose to go,” he said. “But even before Covid, we’ve always prioritized going places and seeing our loved ones whenever we have the opportunity. So we accepted early on that this year was going to be different.”

For some, it’s not the lure of a getaway but necessity that has them accepting the risk and hitting the road. Angella Jensen did not expect to head to Oregon for her first pandemic road trip. Nor did she expect 10 other extended family members to similarly make the trek. In late August, the South Dakota resident and her longtime boyfriend took a trip after receiving news that a relative had a terminal medical diagnosis. “We had family come from all over the country: Nashville, Florida, Oregon, South Dakota,” she told Vox. “Most of them flew or were close enough to drive, but we drove and stayed a week.”

Some attendees were elderly or immunocompromised. Jensen had been isolating with her partner before the drive, packing coolers and food to limit their exposure on the road. As a seasoned traveler, Jensen prefers driving, but her brother is planning to fly to South Dakota from Alabama later this year, and both of her older parents have flown during the pandemic as well.

“Confined space in an airplane personally makes me very nervous, although my family seems to be much more comfortable with it than I am,” Jensen said. “However, I’m much less concerned or cautious when it comes to family gatherings or individuals. There isn’t a logical reason for it, but that’s where I find myself.”

This natural familial comfort — a feeling that encourages people to let their guard down — could be a contributing factor to local outbreaks from family gatherings. But Jensen’s situation reveals how certain events, like a terminal diagnosis, could lead individuals to reassess their own risk tolerance when it comes to traveling vast distances to physically be near their loved ones.

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For Jensen and her family, it has been impossible to plan travel months ahead of time anyway, given the uncertain nature of Covid-19 in the US. While they aren’t exactly packing their bags and leaving at a moment’s notice, shortening the planning time to a week or two has provided time to self-isolate, factor in current infection rates, and iron out the logistics of potentially receiving a Covid-19 test prior to or after the trip.

Jensen has begun to plan three road trips before the end of the year: to Daytona, Florida, in October to see her 20-year-old son; to Nashville for Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family; and to Salt Lake City in December with her 70-year-old dad. Traveling by car gives her flexibility since Jensen can decide at the last minute to forgo a trip — but, she says, it isn’t likely she’ll miss Thanksgiving or a chance to see her dad, “who is insistent on skiing this year.”

“No, I don’t want to get Covid. Who does?” Jensen told me. But the potential to get the disease, she said, is still present whether she stays home or travels. “I am more concerned with being self-contained while I travel to minimize my risk of exposure.”

There are others who might have to make a trek at the holidays: college students who were lured back to campus will be returning home. Families will host get-togethers in spite of the health precautions around mass gatherings, although probably with a shorter guest list and some Zoom participants. Some worry that students coming home from college towns, which have become Covid-19 epicenters, could drive up infections.

“My school isn’t monitoring us at all. People come and go every day if they want,” said Lauryn Craine, a junior at Missouri Valley College. Craine, who is from Chicago, filed a special request in September to ask administrators if she could study remotely. Since she was worried about the college’s handling of Covid-19 outbreaks, Craine knew home would be a safer environment for her to focus and remain for the rest of the academic year.

Last month, she drove the seven hours home to stay with her mother, who is considered high-risk, and quarantined in her room. The risk felt necessary for Craine, who said her mental and physical health were in decline living in an on-campus dorm with four other housemates.

“Traveling was stressful, but I only stopped once for gas to limit my interaction,” added Craine, who will be staying at home for the rest of the school year. “I believe it’s highly likely people will spread Covid back to their hometowns. Since people are already not caring on my campus, they probably won’t care and fly or drive home and spread it.”

Individuals who have been dutifully self-isolating like Craine are mindful of the risks involved in a trip and how to minimize them: Stay at contactless hotels, eat at drive-thrus, avoid crowded pit stops. A handful of these careful travelers also plan to fly. Some say it’s more of a “now or never” moment, according to Wiecheć, the Polish citizen. For those who live thousands of miles away, a plane ride is not only efficient; it also allows one to limit the number of interactions with strangers.

When Wiecheć heard the news that Poland had lifted its quarantine restrictions, he immediately thought to book a flight, although he didn’t tell his family until the logistics were ironed out. He didn’t want to get their hopes up if the trip had to be canceled.

“I am of the mindset that we have to live in the moment, but I think we have to learn how to live with Covid for the next few months or the next couple of years,” Wiecheć said. “I might not be able to hug my mom at the airport right away, but I know I can do that after a week of getting tested.”

Terry Nguyen is a reporter covering consumer and internet trends at The Goods by Vox. She has previously reported for the Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Vice.


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