CLEVELAND, Ohio – By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be strolling the sand on Sanibel, the barrier island off the west coast of Florida that is my happy place. At least I hope I will be.
For months, my extended family planned this trip, the first time we’d all be together in more than a year. But in recent weeks, I started to fear that it wouldn’t happen – or maybe that it shouldn’t.
Normally, anticipation of a trip is part of the fun. But my excitement has slowly morphed into a cloud of impending doom. Someone in my extended clan would get COVID, l feared, as infection rates surged in Cleveland and across the country. Maybe even me.
I believe I speak for all of us when I say: I thought we’d be over this by now. Maybe not over entirely, but over this level of anxiety and fear.
This is not the column to kick off travel in 2022 that I wanted to write or that I thought I would be writing. Last January, during those darkest days of COVID, I think I had more optimism. Vaccines were being rolled out and a new occupant in the White House promised a more aggressive approach to the pandemic.
Since then, millions of my fellow Americans have rejected the vaccines — and those of us who have embraced them have discovered they are not quite as impenetrable as we had hoped. As for the government? Sure, the rhetoric is better, but why exactly can’t I find a rapid COVID test at a drugstore near my house?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week advised that fully vaccinated Americans should not get on cruise ships. And the airlines continue to cancel hundreds of flights a day because of pandemic-related staffing shortages.
I write this two days before my planned departure – and I sure hope mine is not one of them.
Yes, I know, it’s just a vacation. But somehow this trip to Florida has become something much more than that to me – perhaps some fleeting hope for a kind of pre-COVID normalcy.
Indeed, a few months ago, we seemed to be on that path.
Last summer, when COVID numbers were decreasing and vaccination rates were increasing, we – my brother, sister, mother and I, along with our spouses and kids – planned a three-generation family reunion on the beach. We would fly from four different cities in three states.
Last year was the first year in two decades that I didn’t step foot on Sanibel, where my parents retired in 2000. For more than 20 years, the island has been a refuge for me, that rare place where I can fully relax, clear my mind and consume copious amounts of shrimp.
My mother returned to Ohio shortly after the pandemic began in 2020. This early 2022 trip was planned, in part, to reunite her with friends and relatives who still live in Florida.
Yes, I’ve considered canceling. Longwoods International, a Columbus-based travel research firm, reported last month than more than one quarter of Americans were canceling their holiday travel plans because of the surging omicron variant. And my guess is that percentage has increased dramatically in recent weeks.
But none other than Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, has said that fully vaccinated Americans should feel safe traveling this holiday season.
We’ve been told we’re going to have to live with this virus for years. And travel, to me, is part of living.
Worrying, of course, is part of living too.
Concern about getting COVID before the trip is just the start of my worry list: I’m also worried about traveling through the airport, worried about being trapped on a plane next to someone who isn’t vaccinated and doesn’t take masking requirements seriously. And what if a member of my family tests positive while we’re in Florida?
Interestingly, one thing that I’m not really worried about is getting sick. I do trust that the vaccines will protect me from serious illness.
My mom, at 81, is obviously more vulnerable. But she’s not going to be left behind – we’re gathering on Sanibel in large part because of her (not to mention the fact that she’s picking up the tab much of this adventure).
Every decision we make – related to the virus or not – is a balance of risks versus benefits. She’s capable of making up her own mind.
Intellectually, I realize that canceling the trip would not be the end of the world. I tell myself often that a canceled vacation is not anyone’s definition of a tragedy. Yes, we’d be out some money. Yes, it would be extremely hard to reschedule, especially for my young-adult children and nephews.
With more than 800,000 Americans dead from COVID in the past two years, I agree it seems frivolous to worry about a trip to Florida. And yet worry I do.
This trip seems to have taken on an outsized importance in my psyche – more than some necessary time away from work, more than seven days in the sun.
It’s a chance to reconnect with my family in a place where we have longstanding ties. It’s a chance to resume some sense of normalcy during this very abnormal time. Most importantly, it’s a chance to walk on the beach and, I hope, regain some sanity.
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