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I Willingly Traveled To Experience The Same Hurricane … Twice!

So, after exactly 255 masked-up, quarantined, sheltered-in-place, land-locked and locked-down 24-hour cycles, I received an invitation to take part in an industry event in Quintana Roo along México’s Riviera Maya. After eight months, finally, the chance to travel!

As you might expect, with all that has transpired, I expected the unexpected, and I sure got it …

It was a brief trip – three days / two nights, including travel – to Banyan Tree Mayakoba, one of many luxurious resort holdings operated by Singapore-based Banyan Tree. If you have to emerge from virus-induced hibernation, this would be doing it in style, I must say.

But my, how things have changed.

When I arrived at my usual off-premise parking facility at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, I wheeled right into a first-floor, covered spot. That happens about as often as, well, never. Though it was a big break for me [score one for Julie], at the same time it was heartbreaking as I thought of how hard the travel industry has been hit these past 8+ months.

I hopped on the shuttle and, whoa, I was one of just two aboard beside the driver. This was weird. At the airport, a designated mask-checker stood at each entrance. Who would have ever imagined a grade-schooler being asked by a teacher what they wanted to be when they grew up?

“A mask-checker, ma’am!” More weird.

The World’s Busiest Airport … wasn’t.

I walked in and, whoa again, there were virtually no lines at the bag-check counter. After breezing through bag-check, an all-new protocol had travelers going downstairs to clear TSA screening. Once I made my way back to the main area in International F Terminal, I looked down into the first-floor seating area of the airport atrium and there were only two people. This was a Monday morning! People are usually stacked three-deep in that area.

I also noticed there were only two retail outlets open – a Starbucks [naturally] and a sundries shop where you could grab a magazine, a travel trinket, or something to snack on since in-flight cabin service has basically been reduced to doling out MREs. Among the grab & go food items, you could pick up a “Sardine Salad Kit”. Again, I kid you not. I’ll just say it: If you’re sitting next to me and you break out a “Sardine Salad Kit” mid-flight, Air Marshals will be awaiting my arrival.

I also noticed the Sky Club now opens at 8AM, at least two hours later than usual. My mask and I were one of only three folks killing time pre-flight and the WiFi passcode had been posted: “wearmask” … how 2020.

Coins aren’t the only things in short supply …

At the gate, I was pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to Business Class. I guess they realized, way back when, I traveled a lot. [Score another for Julie!] Boarding started with Business Class and the remainder of the plane was boarded back to front. The process was much less chaotic with fewer gate-rushers to board, so another win.

Prior to “wheels up”, there were no less than seven announcements to properly wear masks at all times unless actively eating or drinking and “if not, we will gently remind you”. And by properly, they mean mouth AND nose.  In this era of “peaceful protests”, I take no chances and follow the rules.

When it came time for MREs to be distributed, I must say, Business Class was a letdown. I expected more.  We each got a Zip-Loc bag containing an 8oz bottled water, a pack of Cheez-Its, my beloved Biscoff cookies, a single-dose hand sanitizer and a napkin. Beverage service consisted of beer, wine or water. No soft drinks, no juices, no Flaming Banana Banshees with an extra cocktail umbrella.

Typically, on a 2.5-hour flight, the crew will also go through the cabin with a snack tray of fruit, crackers, granola bars, my beloved Biscoff, etc. Apparently, along with the mysterious coin shortage in America, there is a dire shortage of fruit, crackers, granola and my beloved Biscoff. In my mind, this was a travel whiff by the airline.

After landing, my temperature was taken twice before leaving the airport and again before boarding the ground shuttle. When I got to the hotel, you guessed it, my temperature was taken yet again. I am not exaggerating, my temperature was taken at least 10 times over the course of two days. And for the record, I earned a 98.6 passing grade each time.

Also on the shuttle to/from the airport, my luggage was sprayed with a disinfectant and I was told to use hand sanitizer [I did. Again, I follow rules, especially when in another country.] Even the bottom of my shoes — no, not the evil Tory Burches I wrote about a few weeks ago [read here] — were sprayed with some sort of sanitizer.

Later, Zeta!

Arriving at the hotel, I noticed “social-distancing” was in place and people were cooperating. I proceeded to the Event Check-In Desk and was asked about my level of Covid concern. Color-coded wristbands were then issued each attendee, based on responses:

  • Green meant, “I’m cool chatting with you.”
  • Yellow: “I’m fine, but one step back, please.”
  • Red: “I’m freaking. I don’t even know why I came!”

We had a quick dinner around 5PM and were told to go to our rooms and remain there due to Hurricane Zeta — arriving just over a week after Hurricane Delta had blown through — and her inability to socially distance from my much anticipated getaway. All evening activities had been canceled.

Day 2 began with a new round of temp checks and a new wristband which indicated we’d been given the “all-clear” for that day’s activities. A Resort Marketplace filled the morning schedule with approximately 20 representatives, either in person or via Zoom, showcasing their properties. The large room was filled with 6’ tables and reps and attendees were seated – one at each end – and discussed that particular property. In the case of virtual meetings, the attendee wore headphones which were carefully sanitized after each use. Hand sanitizer had been placed throughout the room. Clearly, the property and event organizers had worked very hard to think matters through and keep the event as safe as possible.

Alcohol + Social = Oopsie

After lunch, there were optional activities, including a spa session which I selected. Again, safety protocols were in place and I was advised I could either wear a mask or have a towel over my face during my massage. I opted for the towel and the therapist gently draped a small towel … over my eyes!  Well, alrighty then.

With the blowy-rainy stuff having moved on [for now], that evening’s reception and buffet dinner remained on the schedule. That’s where all the meticulous attention to safety during a pandemic began to unravel. In the buffet line, the wearing of masks was a 50-50 proposition.

As the evening progressed, it became apparent to me that you simply can’t mix alcohol with a highly social group and expect them to remain distanced. After dinner, a number of us headed for the bar – not a mask in sight, even on Halloween Week. There was a feeling of being old friends and hurricane heroes after a mere 24 hours so rules got tossed aside and we mingled and chatted and laughed like everyone does in normal times.

Day 3 was getaway day and all went smoothly as I headed home – but not for long. The day after I returned, I got to experience Hurricane Zeta once more as it blasted through Atlanta, downing trees and powerlines and knocking out power to more than a million Georgians. Luckily, our home was spared.

It was, indeed, an eventful few days.

In closing, let me say the following. I felt very safe traveling. I knew the planes I’d boarded have never been cleaner or more closely sanitized. Airport lines, where they existed, flowed smoothly and safely. And the host property had bent over backwards to protect our group of 45 attendees. And more than anything, it was beyond awesome to travel again!

But “Sardine Salad Kits” and willingly traveling to experience the same hurricane twice in 48 hours …? Only in 2020.


Julie Thompson-Whelan