Jodi’s Journal: Restrictions, mask mandates and my first flight since COVID

July 26, 2020

“Are you still traveling back and forth at all? If I hear anyone has been on a plane lately, it’s like finding out they visited the moon.”

Little did my friend know when she sent me that message a few weeks ago that I would retrieve it shortly after my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. on the day I would take my first plane trip since the pandemic.

As some of you might know, I travel between Sioux Falls and my hometown of Cleveland quite a bit. Or at least I did up until this past March. The frequent flying stopped as my family was under a stay-at-home order and the number of available flights plummeted. But after multiple missed birthdays and holidays, I was determined to spend a couple of weeks there this month.

As I told people about the impending trip, the reactions were similar to my friend’s – and everyone requested a report back – so here it is.

The first thing to know about air travel mid-pandemic is that the flight you initially book will not necessarily be the flight you ultimately take. I originally had a July 2 Delta flight through Minneapolis planned, leaving Sioux Falls about 11 a.m. and arriving by late afternoon. Those were yanked from the schedule, replaced by only one option for the day – which would have me arriving by about 10:30 p.m. I have learned through years of air travel to try to avoid the last flight of the day, so this was not a great option.

That led me to United, which was able to book me on a July 1 flight through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport – leaving at 6:30 a.m. from Sioux Falls but arriving by around noon. I figured that was my best shot for avoiding delays – despite some bad past O’Hare experiences, which I bet we all have – and I reasoned I had the best chance of the cleanest aircraft if I were the first one in the sky that day.

The scene at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport wasn’t that unlike what you’ve experienced pre-COVID. I use TSA PreCheck, and that separate line at security was gone, but I still got a PreCheck pass while going through the regular line. Many passengers had masks, but the airport does not require them, so not all did.

Most airlines do require masks, which United announced in the gate area followed by an offer to provide one to anyone without one.

When I boarded the plane, I was handed a packaged disinfecting wipe. I instantly could smell chemicals on board, so I’m guessing it was freshly cleaned.

United had messaged me the day before to tell me both my flights were expected to be fairly full and offering me the chance to rebook if that was a concern. “Fairly full” was an accurate description, as I was seated next to someone and both seats across the aisle from us were full, as was much of the flight. I have no problem wearing a mask and believe it makes sense that covering your face could slow the spread of the virus. So I was reasonably comfortable with the crowded plane because I figured at least there was an effort made to contain the sneezes and coughs that are most likely to spread the virus.

After the safety announcements, I saw little from the flight attendants because there were no beverages or snacks offered.

At O’Hare, it was an interesting scene. The normally bustling airport was still pretty busy, and long lines dissuaded me from attempting to buy coffee at Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Masks are required in the airport – and I saw some travelers go beyond that, wearing N95-style respirators covered by face shields.

I arrived in Cleveland right on time, which began a two-week stay during a pivotal time in the state’s COVID-19 containment efforts. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a new classification system for the state’s counties based on several key COVID-related metrics, which placed my home county among the most at-risk for spread. Because of that, masks were mandated in public early in my visit. Several major national retailers soon followed.

This did not seem all that disruptive or inflammatory, as I proceeded to go into lots of stores and get takeout from restaurants. People just seemed to adapt. Of course, there were news reports of some protesters’ pushback, but it was quite limited in scale. New cases in Ohio ranged between 1,100 and 1,700 per day while I was there – in a state of 11 million – which interestingly is about the same per capita as the new daily cases in South Dakota during that time.

Then, it came time for the return trip, which was on Delta through Minneapolis, again because it was a better schedule.

Delta kindly upgraded me to first class – based on my loyalty status, which tells you there were not a lot of people on the flight. I originally was seated on the aisle, with one person across the aisle from me, and the flight attendant asked me to take the window seat instead to keep more distance between us. Delta is not selling all seats on its flights to allow for more distance.

In first class, I was offered free beer or wine, but – sadly for me as I was still in coffee mode – those were the only beverage options other than the bottle of water that was given to me in a plastic zip-top bag. It also held snacks and a tiny Purell packet.

Again, masks were required of all passengers.

In Minneapolis, the airport was an entirely different scene from Chicago. It’s always less congested, but this time I encountered very few people as I walked through in the early afternoon on a Monday. When I arrived, the screen at my gate said only me and three other passengers had connecting flights – everyone else on the plane was staying in Minneapolis.

I tend to indulge in Chick-fil-A if the chance presents when I’m at MSP, but that wasn’t an option this time. The food court area in the C concourse was closed, which also meant no Starbucks.

So I walked to the A and B concourse, where I’d catch my flight to Sioux Falls, and figured I’d get something there. For those familiar with the airport, this is where Quiznos and Godfather’s Pizza used to be. It has been nicely remodeled and looks like it’s going to include Panda Express, but my only option this day was the new Bruegger’s Bagels, where I literally got one of the last bagels before they planned to close for the day at 1 p.m. Lesson here: If you’re going through this airport anytime soon, bring a snack to be safe.

My flight to Sioux Falls was more full than my flight to Minneapolis, but people still were spaced out enough that there was no one in my entire row. I got another bag with water, snacks and sanitizer, plus a wipe this time. And I arrived in Sioux Falls 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

So there you have it – a column I never thought I’d write about what it’s like to fly to Cleveland.

Did I feel it went well enough to do it again? Absolutely. I realize anytime you’re near people it presents a risk, but I felt like there were precautions taken and passengers abided by them. I’ve already got my next trip booked.

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Jodi’s Journal: Restrictions, mask mandates and my first flight since COVID

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