Months into this global pandemic, we’re not flying much—but when we are, as our editor-in-chief learned, it remains a fraught experience.

Airplane in a surgical mask
Anton Petrus / Getty Images

It was a necessary trip. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to fly now, despite the complete and total lunacy of being trapped in a confined space with others whose immunological and moral complications you cannot control. My reason was a good one. I wasn’t on my way to a bacchanal, margarita in hand, or craving deep-dish pizza in Chicago. This was a family thing—which I don’t need to get into—so let’s dress up like Walter White in his meth Winnebago and marinate in airborne doom for four hours!

Here’s how I prepared, and why none of that even mattered:

I’ve written about the spread of Coronavirus, and many of you have read those stories and others. Our piece on grocery shopping under quarantine is the most read on the site in years. And if there’s one thing the Sunset audience loves more than cooking, and maybe midcentury homes and, okay, succulents and raised bed garden planters, it’s travel. So I hope this resonates.

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Back in college, I worked in a biology lab, where we used virus analogues to replicate small strings of genetic material we would then swap into oocytes in an effort to create tumor-like activity. I wasn’t very good at this, and I guess that’s why I’m here, writing to you, now. We all have our calling.

In any case, we were trying to cure cancer. And boy, did we fail. But in the process, I learned just how easy it is for a virus to exponentially replicate itself. How easy it is to contaminate samples. How furious the lab chief would get when six weeks of a study came out spoiled thanks to my mistakes.

I know a lot of us have felt like we’re overreacting. Like instead of a common bug, we’re walking around in body condoms trying to avoid deadly polonium swabbed onto door handles by Russian subversives.

As reopening has begun, we see people slowly (or, in some cases, hastily) throwing caution to the wind. And a subtle psychological effect convinces us that despite what the news and science might have to say, we sure do see a lot of people having boat parties and eating chimichangas inside that restaurant in Santa Monica.

What were we being so cautious about again?

I’ll get to the flight, but let me first point out how bitterly wrong that logic has proven. Every single place that has thrown caution to the wind is now in the throes of a resurgence. Health officials around the country are desperately trying to walk back their phased reopenings. And some of us just don’t care. Let’s get back to business!

For reasons too convoluted to explore here, wearing protective gear—which is overwhelmingly proven to prevent the spread of Covid-19—has been turned into a political signifier, or a measure of one’s masculinity. Chuck Norris wouldn’t wear a mask. Hell naw. Don’t be a sissy.

Which brings me to the airport. Open-air gatherings are one thing. But this is the boss stage of the Coronavirus video game. In preparation, I’d had a Covid-19 antibody test (results negative, which I intended to maintain). I’d purchased a full-body Tyvek suit, and had an N-95 mask left over from a welding kit. I had large cycling glasses with clear lenses to protect my eyes. I chose luggage with a wipe-friendly surface. Nothing would be removed from the bag, my shoes would stay on: I’m TSA approved.

Matt Bean

The first dread crept in at security. “I need a mask?” the woman in front of me said. They let her through anyway. A man with an adorable pit bull had a loose bandana around his neck, dangling. We made it through okay, and I realized this was the norm.

Perhaps 20 percent of the hundreds of people I saw in the airport had no mask at all. Multiple families of five, six, or more were walking around like this was 2019—eating breakfast, hanging out, sitting right next to me as I looked like a crime scene technician disinfecting the pleather seat.

Around 40 percent had a mask of some kind, maybe a tattered bandana, maybe a repurposed ski buff, maybe one of the cheap and inefficient blue masks that are now a dime a dozen. (Okay, closer to two for a buck.)

But many of that cohort covered only their mouths, not their noses. As though the nose were somehow not a part of the respiratory system.

I felt like I was playing a game of “the floor is lava,” only this one featured invisible clouds of potentially deadly air emitted by everyone around me. I looked for unpopulated pockets or dormant gates where I could sequester myself, hide out, and watch for flight notifications.

I boarded the plane at the last minute to avoid the cattle call in the confined airport ramp, and sat in high-airflow 1A, which I’d chosen on the advice of infectious disease experts. My seat mate in 1B had his mask hanging from his ear. He was on a trip with his buddies, who were seated behind us.

We went through the security protocol. The flight attendants had a special spiel about masks and the importance of using them. Time and time again, 1B would see something funny and turn to talk to his friends behind us, effectively smashing his face against the side of mine. I’d lean forward to exit our relative airspace. I was fuming.

The flight attendants were doing nothing, he wasn’t stopping, and for some reason the plane was going nowhere. Finally, the captain (whose mask was only over his mouth, not his nose) announced: Well, guys, that 15–20 minute delay is looking like an hour now. We don’t know what’s wrong with this door. We’re going to go ahead and let you deplane.

We all groaned.

Back in the terminal, an hour delay turned into two, which turned into three. Each delay, I steeled myself against the extended time spent in the terminal, did the math on my exposure, my risk. My mask had not come off, not even for a drink of water, but with a four-hour flight and a potential disease risk as a seat mate I didn’t know how long I could keep this up.

When my 8:30 a.m. flight was pushed to 1 p.m., I’d had enough. Screw this. It’s a sign. I retrieved my bag just as it was announced the flight would be rescheduled to 4:30.

One piece of advice: If you must fly, don’t fly Spirit Airlines.

I left the terminal dejected. When we enter crowded spaces, we put not only ourselves at risk but others, too. We can control our own space, but we cannot control others’. And from what I saw, the agencies in charge—the TSA, the airline, the airport authorities—really didn’t care. A cop sauntered around, no mask to be seen. He had a gun, so maybe he thought that was enough.

My point is this: If you must fly—and I’m not going to parse reasons, we all have our own justifications—just know that it will be incredibly risky, and that you can do nothing to prevent the bad decisions of those around you. Choose an airline that actually commits to keeping its passengers safe. Wear the best possible mask you can. Bring hand wipes and alcohol spray and use them liberally. Be vigilant about not touching your face. Take the first flight of the day, which should (theoretically) be disinfected. Immediately toss your clothes in the wash when you arrive. Or just hop in the car, queue up some podcasts, and hit the road.

We’re not back to normal. We’re nowhere near it.

Don’t be fooled into complacency. As much as we all want this to be over, it’s not. For it to end, it’ll take more than wishful thinking—we’re in this together, and we need to act like it.

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