The plane was empty and so I got upgraded.
This, I can safely say, was the best part about traveling at the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Not that I’d travel now. You probably shouldn’t. By the time you’re reading this, you probably can’t. And if I knew then how bad things really were, what our government wasn’t telling us about how quickly it was already spreading, I probably wouldn’t have traveled. But I did, and it was fine. Except for the parts that weren’t.
I live in New York City but had a long-scheduled trip to fly to Los Angeles for three nights to host a fundraiser for the One Fair Wage campaign, which is working to end the sub-minimum wage through which restaurant workers and others are literally paid poverty wages that are the legacy of slavery and for which tips are supposed to make up the difference but often don’t. You might not know that when you eat out or get food delivered or even take app-based car service, your tips are making up most of the workers’ pay. This injustice is even worse amid coronavirus and the economic downturn (which is why we started an emergency fund to provide cash assistance to tipped workers).
Somehow this trip was the opposite, all these moments where it felt like I and others were tiptoeing around intensely aware that any second, everything might be different.
Suffice it to say, I thought this was a worthy reason to fly across the country on the precipice of a pandemic and for that reason, I’m glad I did it. But my partner, who loves me (and also loves fighting for justice), was decidedly less than enthused because she worried I’d be exposing myself even further to the virus. Which is to say she was downright pissed and didn’t speak to me most of the time I was gone and even considered making me self-quarantine for 14 days before I came back home.
But did I mention I got upgraded?
It was surreal to be away from home while everyone seemed to be preparing for and clamoring to hunker down. I feel like the event we hosted was the last public gathering on Earth, and it’s amazing we pulled it off. But even more surreal was to be in airports and hotels, the lifeblood of the tourism industry, as things were reeling. The flight attendants on United went above and beyond to keep us all hydrated and sanitized, but I overheard them all worrying about how they’re going to be affected and what they’re going to do when service is cut.
I had a gorgeous suite at Mr. C. Beverly Hills (again, woo-hoo upgrades!), but all my conversations with the front desk staff and the valets were about coronavirus. One valet who had been sweet and funny my entire stay told me the day before I left that he wouldn’t see me tomorrow. His hours had just been cut, from five days a week down to three, because of the downturn in bookings. I wanted to give him a hug, but #socialdistancing. So I just gave an extra-large tip, which still felt inadequate.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) on Mar 16, 2020 at 7:09am PDT
In Los Angeles, I had gone out to dinner with a friend. The restaurant had been packed, the tables still close together. But everyone was talking about how that would soon change. I thought back to a party I’d gone to in New York City the night before September 11th, how I didn’t know that night that everything the next day would be different. Somehow this trip was the opposite, all these moments where it felt like I and others were tiptoeing around intensely aware that any second, everything might be different.
Part of what’s hard for those of us who love travel is the stark reality that travel is what probably helped fuel this pandemic. The beauty of an interconnected world suddenly revealed to also be a risk. The idea that someone traveling to experience and bridge understanding with distant others could, in fact, be unwittingly harming those others and themselves. That all of the good intentions of our wanderlust could also lead to devastation.
This, I think, was where my partner’s head was at—that in trying to do good, in this case, raising money for a good cause, I could also be causing harm, far more than I knew and definitely more than I intended. It was a calculated risk but I may never know the final tally of my impact. Indeed, we may all be left with more questions than answers in this moment. I came home. I sanitized every inch of myself, just like I’d sanitized my plane seat and hotel room and rental car and washed, and continue to wash, my hands so often that my fingers look like scaly lizard talons.
It was a calculated risk but I may never know the final tally of my impact. Indeed, we may all be left with more questions than answers in this moment.
And yet, what I realized is that usually when I travel for work, I relish the time alone. Sleeping in my own bed, reading on the plane, driving around listening to whatever music I want and not what my kid wants. But on this trip, I felt less alone in a good way—in the sense of appreciating how we’re all connected, not just in how we spread viruses and all suffer together, but how we all work together to deal with such crises and find solutions.
Yes, we’re in this mess because we’re connected, but the only way out is more connection—not physically but morally, making sure that everyone has health care and paid sick leave and income and wage supports for lost time at work. It’s sort of like we’re all in the same boat, or plane. And in a crisis, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been upgraded. We’re all in this one together.