A Flight to Spokane And Into the Heart of a Pandemic
March 11, 2020
A pre-recorded public service announcement cuts through the din at LAX. The female voice states over the intercom that the airport is “doing its part” to protect its passengers and workers. However, she flips the script and states that we, the passengers, need to take responsibility to keep ourselves safe, wash our hands, and practice social distancing (which only a handful of people in the airport are currently doing).
She takes it one step further by proclaiming that passengers can take “two-fluid-ounce bottles of hand sanitizers with 60% ethanol or higher.”
At least that part of the message is getting through; the gift shop next to my gate barely has enough 2 oz bottles of hand sanitizers in stock. The shelf is almost empty. Luckily, I grabbed one before arriving at LAX and stored it in my carry-on (essentially, my backpack). Best yet, it’s small enough to be allowed through the TSA check. That’s one less thing to worry about in this increasingly uncertain day.
Still, it’s a subtle sign of the time we’re living in. Nothing will remain normal. And those changes, I surmise, will increase as the onslaught of the coronavirus outbreak seemingly grows by the minute.
It’s becoming apparent, as I wait for my flight at the Wolfgang Puck near my gate, I’m taking a chance during an extremely contentious time. The flat-screen behind the bar in the facility broadcasts a sports news network. Every 10 minutes, it’s announcing “Breaking News” and it’s exclusively pertaining to the virus outbreak.
I’m too far away to hear its audio. Then again, the news finds another way to get my attention. The Smart News and Bleacher Report apps on my phone keep buzzing, revealing more updates. As I sit there, I learn that:
March Madness -- college basketball’s greatest event -- has been canceled.
The NBA suspends the season.
A NBA player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus.
Major League Baseball postpones season opener.
NHL, MLS, and XFL do the same.
Another monitor shows the news. A chyron creeps across the bottom of the screen:
Tom Hanks and his wife test positive for coronavirus and immediately go into self-quarantine.
Sporting events cancelled or postponed? A lovable actor and his wife are affected? Although COVID-19 (as it’s officially being called) has been around since December and has decimated a province in China (as well as entering the United States through various means), these incidents put the virus into a terrifying perspective. Anyone can be infected, even the rich and famous.
More news about the virus surfaces. It appears that those affected by it may have coughs, fevers and shortness of breath. The most vulnerable appear to be the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. It can be passed through contaminated surfaces or be passed to others through saliva or coughs.
By the minute, the virus is making a mockery of all the norms of today’s society. Yet, I still fly under these conditions. Why fly? Simply put, it’s a family thing.
More Than 900 Miles
I’m in a unique position. I work in Los Angeles but live in a Spokane, Washington suburb. I grew up in the South Bay region of LA and lived for 13 years in Orange County. Last summer, we moved. The problem, however, was that as a tenured teacher with seniority (not to mention 5 years away from being eligible for early retirement), I couldn’t transfer to a new school system in a new state without losing tenure and pay.
Changing districts, let alone changing states, for a teacher is never easy, and may require going back to college to match the credential qualification for that state. In addition, only a few years of the 20 years I have put in would count toward the new pay scale (your “raise” is usually based on the number of years and the amount of education and/or degrees you’ve earned. The pay scale is based in columns. Often, if one moves from one district to another, only six years of “service” will be recognized and applied by the new district and tenure will have to be earned through two or three years of service with the new district. Non-tenured teachers can be let go without any further notices, making this a very risky move).
A decision was made; I’d split my time between both metropolitan areas. The plan was this: between mid-August and early June, I am in the LA area. During the summer months, I am at home. Additionally, I was to fly home once every month and during holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
The cloud of suspicion and paranoia created by the virus was becoming thick.
On average my stays were only four or five days. The exceptions were the main holidays. Often, Thanksgiving in my district is a week long; Christmas three weeks and Easter -- combined with the local holiday of Cesar Chavez Day -- is 10 days.
COVID-19 changed that. Rumors circulated that non-essential businesses were being forced to close down. News of toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages was being passed around on social media. The cloud of suspicion and paranoia created by the virus was becoming thick.
My next flight was originally going to be during my Spring Break at the end of the month, a mere two weeks away. But, I had news that my youngest son was not doing well, emotionally. The events were freaking him out. Most importantly, he feared I was going to be stuck in LA as things got worse. He needed me, my wife stated. I couldn’t argue with that.
Still, as this virus begins to take a toll on the public, I have some hopes that my trip home will be brief. My trip is meant to be five days.
Now, my phone indicates a message and I recognize it. I guess that optimism was extremely immature.
Dilemma At School
The decision to leave for home now is turning out to be a good one. A notification on my phone indicates I have an email from my school district. The superintendent wrote that state and county education officials are recommending that school campuses throughout California will need to close down for a few weeks (until after Spring Break). Although it’s not official (the school board has to approve it), my school district will be one of the last to close its campus.
I can’t say I’m surprised. School closures in major California districts such as Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego Unified were imposed earlier in the week. All University of California and California State University campuses switched to online courses and closed down traditional face-to-face courses.
California universities and public schools are not alone. It’s happening throughout the country. Administration at many of these campuses state they will close them for a few weeks. There’s rumbling among educators, especially on my campus, that this will expand to a month or possibly for the rest of the year.
There were other signs that things were going to head in this direction. Since Monday of this week, the janitorial crew on my school campus started using disinfectant to clean all the rooms. And, in many cases, they didn’t wait until school ended. One example was a classified worker stationed throughout lunchtime at the entrance to the administration building, frantically spraying and wiping down the glass doors and its handle as students and faculty members entered and exited the facility.
Another email from my school site appears. This time it’s the principal at my school. She states that school will be in session for the rest of the week and into Monday, which is our typical collaboration day. Collaboration days in our district are late-start days for students, but involves a 1.5 hour faculty meeting in the morning.
Monday’s meeting was supposed to be about preparing for the upcoming testing season (from late April through May). The principal states that will not be on the docket. Instead, distant learning and preparing for it will be the topic. She doesn’t mince words; she writes that the rest of next week the campus will be closed to students, pending board approval. Only teachers will be allowed on campus, but only to prepare for the inevitable switch to distance learning.
More than ever, my original plan of flying back to LA next Monday will not happen, especially if I have to work from home. There’s really no need for me to return at that scheduled time. I text my wife the latest news that I may be home for a long, long time.
A Miraculous Direct Flight
Direct flights to Spokane are rarities. Or as someone at Alaska Airlines mentioned last month, “it’s something new.” Whatever is the reason, this is a good thing. Alaska Airlines flights often had stopovers at SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport).
Lately, Seattle is not the place you want to be. More deaths from the coronavirus have been reported from this metropolitan area. In many respects, it appears to be the first U.S. epicenter for the virus (will it be the last? All signs point that it won’t be). Although many cases have been centered on an assisted living facility in Kirkland, there’s speculation that an infected, but asymptomatic, person carried the virus from overseas to the facility, via the airport. And if there’s one thing I know about SeaTac, it is a very busy and very crowded airport.
Quite a few people traveling through that airport may have been exposed. This includes the employees.
Inside the Airport
LAX is no picnic either. There are more passengers than usual, especially in the gate for my flight. Weekday flights to a place such as Spokane don’t usually attract a lot of travelers (it should be noted: before March Madness was cancelled, one of the places hosting it was going to be Spokane where Gonzaga University is located. Ironically, the crowd number I currently see could have been the same or much higher if the basketball tournament was still happening).
My suspicion is that most of the people are tourists trying to get home. Social distancing has led to low turnout at theme parks. California Governor Gavin Newsom “strongly suggested” that the state cancel all public events involving 250 people or more to combat the potential spread of COVID-19 (Indie Wire, 2020). Hot tourist spots in Southern California, such as Disneyland, are slated to close until further notice (They are to close on March 14). Why stay when all the attractions can be lethal? I don’t blame them for flying out as soon as possible.
Another observation: I’m used to seeing small groups of individuals donning surgical masks at the airport. In the past, I scoffed at them for being so paranoid about germs. Now, as these new threats loom, I’m starting to see them in a new light. They knew what to do well before anyone else. Not only that, they are becoming the norm.
I’m concerned that the crowded gate will equate to a crowded flight -- meaning I will be in close contact with others for a two-hour flight.
Not all of them wear surgical masks, however. Many have painters masks -- the ones similar to those sold at major hardware stores. To my knowledge, I have no idea if the surgical masks really work, nor do I know if the industrial painters masks do, either. I wonder, however, if the local Home Depot, Ace Hardware, or Lowe’s are having trouble keeping these in stock.
Still, after hearing the warnings, I’m concerned that the crowded gate will equate to a crowded flight -- meaning I will be in close contact with others for a two-hour flight. I reach into my backpack and grip the hand sanitizer. I leave it in the bag with no intention to use it at this point. Instead, I hold it as assurance that I have some form of protection on this flight.
A Silver Lining Before Boarding
Time to board the plane. My phone buzzes indicating I have a text message from my wife. My children’s schools just announced their closures, starting next Monday. This is a silver lining for me. I will have more time with my boys when I get up there.
Departure is on time. The plane is small and nearly every seat is taken. A family of four sits near me. The mother sits in my row while her husband is seated across the isle from her. They seem happy and appear not to be taking precautions such as wearing surgical masks But, looks can be deceiving.
The wife places her carry-on under the seat in front of her. She checks her phone, texts something as the plane rolls onto the tarmac. She glances at her husband.
“It’ll only be two and half hours before we’re home, “ she says to him.
He seems relieved. In many respects, his wife is jovial, but he is quiet and anxious. I don’t think I want to know why he’s worried.
Just as the plane takes off, the mother exchanges her cellphone for a small bottle of hand sanitizer. She applies it to her hands. Immediately, a combination of orange and ethanol permeates the air.
Twenty minutes later, she repeats the ritual. Normally, I’d find this annoying. Instead, I pull out my bottle and do the same.
It’s half way into the flight and somebody just coughed. It’s brief, but my senses are heightened. The same can be said about the woman next to me. She’s applying orange-scented hand sanitizer, again with an extra dose. I’m tempted to apply my own, but relent. The coughing stops. All I know is that it came from a few seats behind me. The person is more than six feet away, but this flight violated that rule the moment it was loaded.
There’s another cough. It’s coming from the woman’s husband. I see him covering his mouth. Is he ill? For a moment, I suspect he’s not. Again, the cough dissipates. The passengers are eerily silent for a moment. Are they reacting like I am? If so, they’re trying to remain calm as their heart beats hard and fast.
Am I overreacting? Probably. But the threat of this virus has been growing by the day...even by the hour within the day. On top of that, little is known about it. The only scant information makes it sound like a cold or flu. But, this is no flu and all indication is that anyone can be carrying it… even without noticeable symptoms such as a cough, fever or shortness of breath. Already, the dominoes were falling before we departed LAX. How many will fall?
News Arrives While Landing
It’s past 10 pm. Flight arrives on schedules. The pilot makes the statement we can turn on our electronics (basically, we can now use our phone). Immediately I text my sister in L.A., letting her know I’ve arrived at my destination. Also, I text my wife, who’s waiting in a parking lot near Spokane International’s entrance.
I enter the facility and head toward the exit near the baggage claims (no need to travel with luggage considering that all my personal belongings are at my Spokane home or at my family’s home in LA). It’s late night and all the retail shops, bars, and eateries are closed.
My trip is done the moment my wife picks me up and drives me home. Spokane hasn’t felt the brunt of COVID-19, even though there’s a quarantine center at the local hospital. At night I don’t notice much. But, I know by morning I will see signs that this community has felt the wicked touch of this virus.
For now, my journey ends as I leave behind a world that’s in constant change. The future is bleak, and I don’t believe I want to know what it will hold for me or anyone else.
© 2020 Dean Traylor