When I tell people I flew back from Hong Kong to New York City last weekend, many ask one of two questions.
The first: How long does it take? must be quarantined? And the second: You must have asked yourself a lot of questions at the airport, right?
The answer to the first is zero days. In many parts of the world – including Greece, Ghana, New Zealand and Hong Kong – anyone arriving from abroad has to go through a mandatory two-week isolation phase to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. In some of these locations, newcomers caught running in the corner store can be fined such as a $ 3,000 fine or a six-month prison term.
In the United States, however, there is no mandatory 24 -7-you-better-not-even-step-outside quarantine for Americans who come from a foreign place, regardless of the status of the outbreak there. Non-Americans from some perceived coronavirus hotspots are not allowed to penetrate completely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some specific recommendations for arrivals from the same hotspots. (Hong Kong is not on this list.) And everyone in New York City is currently hiding most of the time. But there are no additional rules for people like me who just got off an international flight.
The answer to the second question, which must have been a rigorous airport check, is: Let me tell you a story. But it may not end the way you want it to.
It starts with emptiness.
When I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport on the night of March 27, I saw so few passengers that I started to wonder if all flights had been canceled. There had been a rumor a few days earlier that was going to happen.
But no. The doormen at the airport asked for my boarding pass. I think they zapped my forehead with one of these temperature scanners too, but I can't be sure. After three weeks in Hong Kong, I stopped noticing that masked strangers had measured my temperature. It is so common.
To say the security line is short would be wrong because you cannot have just one line of yourself. When I passed it, the only other "people" I saw were beautiful, exposed Gucci models who hugged horses and hovered in pools projected on massive screens. (Why should you wear leather gloves in a pool? However, this was not a corona-specific problem.)
Everything beyond security – the shops, the duty-free bazaar, the restaurants – were closed.
I arrived at the airport very early because I assumed that health experts would ask me a series of questions to assess how high my risk was to society.
My plan was to go through that and then find something to eat. Since I arrived in Hong Kong in early March to help out at the New York Times office, I had heard that the city was committed to making food flow. Even when the schools closed, the bars closed, and the entire population wore masks almost all the time, the restaurants remained open late into the night and full of people.
But I had miscalculated. At the airport, no health issues awaited me, and even the vending machine was empty. I was frozen in front of it, listening to its eerie buzz and trying to remember which zombie apocalypse film featured a vending machine prominently. (I never found out.)
A colleague informed me that she had heard that the Wing, a lounge belonging to the airline Cathay Pacific, was open. I found my way there and found out that there was a fully functional restaurant inside.
"How much does a lounge pass cost?"
"It is only by invitation," said the greeter
"There is no other place anywhere in the airport where you can get food or even buy water, ”I told him. "Can't I just pay?"
"It is only an invitation," he said again unmoved.
I returned to my gate, where about 20 people had now appeared. So I was not the only person who decided to leave part of the world with the coronavirus under control to fly to another one that clearly did not.
When I entered the boarding line, a man in a uniform was approaching me. Have I been to Iran, mainland China or Italy? That was what I longed for. But he switched to the old standards too quickly: had someone given me something that I could put in my pocket? (As if I had let someone get so close!)
My next neighbor on the flight, a woman in a crumpled, oversized poncho, was already obsessed when I sat down. It made me feel safe.
I'm not sure I did the same for them. While eating my plane, I accidentally dropped my mask and stepped on it. I had a backup, but it took me a while to find it.
Fifteen hours later I got off the plane in Los Angeles, where a flight attendant handed me a C.D.C. form. There was a section that I had to fill out and a section for "the screener" where I could check off if I had signs of "obviously feeling unwell" and could enter my temperature. That seemed promising. If they asked me to go through the screening, it most likely meant that they were pushing all international arrivals to go through the screening.
But what I got closest to a screener was the automatic passport control kiosk. After that I had two short encounters with living, breathing people. One wordlessly checked my passport and the other collected the photo of the pass kiosk from me. But nobody asked me a single question.
And after the nearby posters, the biggest threat to the nation was still the illegal wildlife trade.
That was it. In this way I returned to America,
When I went to the domestic terminal for the next leg of my return trip to New York, I was overwhelmed by all the bare noses and mouths. Even the Delta desk clerks stood there with their faces hanging out. It's been a while since I saw this.
In internal security I tried to put on my shoes. It did not work. "Shouldn't we focus more on ensuring that people don't carry a human terrorizing virus than looking for sneaker explosives?" I wanted to say. But not so much.
On my next flight to Atlanta, we learned that there would be no soda or hot drinks – just water – to reduce flight attendant interaction with passengers. OK, people made sense here. A woman a few rows behind me asked if she could go to first class because it was emptier up there. The answer was no. OK, not that much sense.
On my last flight from Atlanta to New York, I was inexplicably forced to see "Gilmore Girls" even though I never liked the show and I didn't have the right headphone jack. After 20 minutes of quiet scenes from life in a small town with close contact, it struck me: People in television programs rarely touch their faces.
We landed three flights and 27 hours after I started my journey home. When I dragged my suitcase to the airport on March 9, only 20 confirmed coronavirus cases were reported in New York City. No one had led to death.
And now, less than three weeks later, New York had exceeded 32,000 confirmed cases and 670 virus-related deaths. (As of Friday, it had increased to 57,159 cases and 1,867 reported deaths.)
Now that New York City was an epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, surely someone would ask me something ?! Of course not. I left the airport and made my way home to Brooklyn.
Later that night I told my wife how disappointed I was with the lack of interviewing.
"What exactly did you want? Ask yourself? "She asked.
I tried to think of my most critical question:" could you have come into contact with an infected person? "
" What did you hope to achieve with this? "she asked.
It was fair criticism because at that point in Hong Kong and New York pretty much everyone would answer yes.
Further undermined my own need for questioning, researcher I have long said that screening at the airport for most diseases is pretty useless. The only consistent benefit seems to be the ability to collect information for future health checkups.
Still, that's not nothing. Could also ask us this CDC Forms.
I took the crumpled document out of my pocket and read the fine print, and there were about 20 destinations listed below, which travelers from these locations had to fill out , it was said. Hong Kong was not included. Why had anyone bothered to give it to us at all?
Maybe, like me, they had to believe that something else could be done.