The politics of road-tripping during a pandemic

bicycling outfit with mask in front of elkhorn arch in Jackson Wyoming
I felt awkward as one of the few masked tourists in the public square in Jackson WY

I can’t understate how terrifying and isolating Manhattan was in March and April 2020. During that spring, 1 of every 300 New Yorkers died of COVID. Thoroughfares were deathly still except for the blare of ambulance sirens. Morgue trucks parked on Manhattan streets, and a tent hospital sprang up in Central Park. Midtown was deserted except for the homeless and the military doctors around the Javits Convention Center field hospital and the hospital ship HMS Mercy.  Friends refused to leave their apartments; I spent four weeks without having a face-to-face conversation. From behind the bars of my ground-floor window  the “7-o-Clock Clap” felt more like a desperate prison riot than a joyous communion. Nothing was normal; everything felt threatening.

After a stressful airplane ride on July 19th I found myself in California, a different universe. Unmasked tourists passed each other on Tahoe’s trails, oblivious to the 6-foot bubble I’d become paranoid about defending. People ate casually at outdoor bars, talking and laughing loudly at big tables of friends. Party boats for rent puttered around the lake, strangers spending the day with each other and with crew on a small deck.

I was overwhelmed. Afraid for my health and terrified for the elderly, outraged at behavior that put personal liberty above safety of front-line workers, and sad for the contagion and death which I felt sure would follow these gatherings.  I was on edge, and a few times screamed at strangers congregating on trails without a mask in sight- much as I had in Central Park during the worst of the spring outbreak.

As the days and weeks passed, I started to see the differences between life in the West and in NYC.  Going for a run in NYC I might pass a family in the hallway between my apartment and the building door, and another half-dozen people between my building and the streetcorner. By the time I got to the closest park, I may have passed two dozen people- and would pass more in the park. In California, friends could walk from their house to their car, drive to a trailhead, and go for a hike or bike ride without seeing a single soul – certainly less objective risk, and no mental burden of thinking about 6-foot bubbles of safety.

Traveling, I have seen and felt the difference between attitudes and practices towards masking, social distance, and business restrictions in different states. Local attitudes -frontier individualism vs. community-mindedness, libertarian free will vs. trust in authority- mix with government messaging to create regional pockets of looser or stricter covid precautions.  Traveling from Wyoming to Colorado I was relieved to find people on hiking trails wearing masks. Traveling from Wyoming to Idaho I was terrified to see unmasked patrons spilling from a busy bar onto a street.  Going from urban to rural Montana I was irate to see a restaurant with busy indoor dining in a region with an overwhelmed hospital and one of the worst infection rates in the country.

I’ve also seen individual attitudes shape risk management- the unmasked elderly store owner in liberal Bozeman with younger masked clerks, the nurse friend in the Bay Area who was scared for her life meeting masked in a windy park on the same weekend that my other liberal Bay Area friends were out on an unmasked group bike ride. In New York there were strong, consistent, and unified daily messages coming from state and local governments, and everyone quickly became experts at masks, social distancing, and discussing risk management. In other states where messages have changed, conflicted, or been muted by local governments, individuals feel more need to make their own decisions.

As a nerd I have sought comfort in data throughout the pandemic, and I have tried to keep  constant levels of COVID precautions across different locations by monitoring case rates, positivity rates, and growth rates with national online tools like CovidActNow, PandemicsExplained, the NYTimes Covid Map, and a tracking dashboard I built in Python. Based on my time in NYC, I have a felt sense of how scary a 15% positivity rate or 20 cases/100k/day feels like- and how uncomfortable I should be getting a coffee, going for a walk with friends, or hanging out around a table.

However, the numbers are just one part of it-  and it is ultimately impossible to know who will get sick and who will die.  My experience in NYC was when mortality rates were high, resources were low, and the population affected had many pre-existing conditions. Young, outdoorsy, athletic towns like Jackson and Moab haven’t seen the same mortality that NYC has, even when positive tests have surged.

In the presence of these unknowns, different friends place different values on freedom, normalcy, and precaution. To friends in unaffected areas, my level of concern seems like paranoia. To friends who work in nursing and who have seen colleagues die, my travels appear cavalier. As I visit friends around the country to park in their driveway and use their wifi and bathroom, I’ve tried to navigate a comfortable compromise around risk management when using their bathrooms.  These conversations have often felt charged and uncomfortable- the same probing and vulnerable discussions that you might have when discussing STDs and consent.  The outcomes haven’t always been great: I had a friendship dissolve under the tension I created around Covid, and seen issues pop up in the relationship of two friends who had different feelings around the risks of having me visit.

Ultimately,  I’m trying to navigate this in a way which feels true to my experience in NYC, but maintains connection with others.  I stick to wearing a mask anytime I’m indoors or less than 6ft from someone else, and ask others to do the same. I often feel awkward when I’m the only person masked, but know that my feelings from the spring are real and powerful, and this is the right thing for me to do.  And I work to create safe meetingplaces and adventures where I can connect with friends, 6ft apart.

van on dry lakebed in sunset

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