When Covid began – I mean, truly began – in March of 2020, I came home. I was in Spain, and told myself that as soon as cases got out of control (I defined this as more than 100 cases in a single day country-wide) I’d leave Europe and return to Los Angeles until it had all passed. I locked down; I masked up. It would all be over by June, I assured myself.
Well, the Alpha variant came and went, and then Delta, and 2020 travel never reappeared. Then, in March of 2021, I was lucky enough to get my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, followed by my second, and subsequent third. The world seemed to open up again, and travel was once again possible. Other variants sprang up, but none shut down the world again as the others had. And then, in December, came Omicron.
Like pretty much everyone else I know, I glued myself to the news. How contagious was this new strain? How deadly? Will it reach the US? I had a trip planned to visit Puerto Rico in January. Would I be affected?
Before Omicron, Puerto Rico was averaging about 150 cases per day, which, while well above my threshold to leave Spain nearly two years prior, was pretty much nothing in the grand scheme of Covid. In total, the prior two years had brought about 200,000 cases to the island. Then one day there were 500 cases, then 1,000, then 4,000. In the two weeks starting the Omicron surge, Puerto Rico’s total case count increased by 50% to 300,000.
New mitigation policies were put into place. The island began requiring even vaccinated travelers to provide negative tests before arrival, and non-vaccinated visitors were required to quarantine. Restaurants had their capacities reduced and were required to check proof of vaccination for indoor dining. Large events were canceled. A midnight to 5am curfew was put into place for anywhere that served food or drinks.
It was only two days before our trip that “A,” my girlfriend, and I made the final decision to go. The surge was still raging, though case counts had come down to “only” 8-10,000 a day from a high over 20,000 the week before. We knew the trip would be different than the one we had initially planned. Here was our experience.
Prior to Omicron, while we had worn N95 masks onboard flights, we had spent airport time in sturdy, but simple, cloth masks. With the news that those offer little protection against this highly contagious strain, we opted for the less comfortable but safer N95s the whole way. This included arrival time at the airports, transit time during layovers, and of course, all time onboard. I’m grateful for the protection, but to say this was comfortable in the least would be a lie. After arriving in San Juan, both of us had lines of red across our noses from the masks, and headaches from not taking them off. We did not eat or drink on our flights, except for sticking the straws of our water bottles up under the masks, and our small snacks in the airports were consumed quickly in areas that we could find with no people.
Fortunately, there were few incidents with people removing masks onboard our flights, although a couple people needed reminding to cover their noses or put masks back on immediately after eating. And yes, I am that person who was only too happy to remind them.
In San Juan, we canceled pretty much every planned activity that wouldn’t allow social distancing. We went to a single museum, and were the only people inside. We wore N95 masks at all times people were present – except for while at the beach, though we never sat within 20 or more feet of anyone else – even outside. We canceled an all-day van tour of El Yunque rainforest, and instead opted for a night kayak of a bioluminescent bay – and yes, we were masked in N95s whenever people were remotely close.
Most of our days were just spent at the beach. We walked around the city rather than taking Ubers, averaging more than four miles per day on foot, with days going to Old San Juan exceeding ten. (Fortunately, the beach was only two blocks from our Airbnb.)
We did not eat a single meal inside, other than in our Airbnb. And for the most part, we didn’t even partake in outdoor dining, instead opting for carry out taken to a bench in a park or back home. We even took our drinks to go, something San Juan makes possibly with their open carry (of alcohol, not guns) policy.
All in all, I would say about 75-80% of locals wore masks, even outside on the street. (Masks are not required at the beaches.) As for tourists? Maybe 50% at best. It saddens me that guests at someone else’s home will not only ignore the laws there, but do so in a manner that jeopardizes the health of the locals. It’s shameful. The problem is bad enough that I was thanked – thanked! – at multiple establishments for happily agreeing to show my vaccination card just to order takeout. It seems many tourists chose instead to chastise restaurant staff.
We did not get Covid tests while on the island, though we had some home tests with us. We did test upon returning home, and were both thankfully negative.
The takeaways? First, travel can be done safely during the middle of a Covid surge, though it involves sacrifices to both comfort and plans. Second, many tourists care not a fig for those around them. Finally, I am lucky to have gone to a place where elected officials cared so much for safety of both locals and visitors.
This was as stressful of a travel experience as I’ve ever had. Normally one who loves flying, it filled me with anxiety and even dread. But I was able to have an experience that was fulfilling, worthwhile, and positive. So while I hope that there won’t be another variant causing another surge, I’m confident that it, too, can be navigated.
Please note, if you are going to travel during Covid – or indeed, anytime – it is incumbent on YOU to follow any rules put into place. You are a guest. Act in a way that reflects positively on you, your home, and your basic sense of morality. And for heaven’s sake, get vaccinated and boosted if you aren’t yet!