I.He had been aware, for a while, that wealthy friends had resumed their travels, and a few months ago, in the first bout of vaccination optimism and with Covid rates in New York dropping, it seemed easy. Maybe we can do this, I thought. Countries that depended on tourism dollars were reopening. Airline prices were still low. I told myself that it was safer to go to Costa Rica than to Florida. If Jet Blue thought it was okay to travel to San Jose, then that was good enough for me. Besides, I thought, with stubborn servility, if it was really dangerous to fly to Central America, the United States government would not let me do it. (Say ah.)
That was at the end of March. Last summer, along with everyone else who was lucky enough to be able to get out of town, we rented a minivan and, after driving north for three hours, the minimum trip required to eliminate the extraordinary fees from resorts near New York, hitting inflation, we sat August in a Massachusetts house. It wasn’t about flying to England or anywhere else, and if we missed seeing friends and family, it was a comfort to eliminate that option. Of course, people were still flying last summer. But their circumstances were generally so different from ours that they took the pain out of making decisions.
This year is different. The process of establishing a risk tolerance level is more murky. I am fully vaccinated, but my children are not, although on the other hand they have been sitting in a class with 20 other children for weeks, with no transmission. Vaccination rates in the US are skyrocketing. Mask requirements for people outside have been removed. Everything is open. We are done, right? OK, we are done.
Clearly, this is not a completely reality-based change, but a psychological response to confinement fatigue, and also something else to do with our understanding of basic narrative structures. A few weeks ago, before the weather changed, it seemed impossible to imagine that this summer would be the same as the last, not because the world was in better shape, but because 18 months of extraordinary events seemed the absolute limit of a credible story. This was certainly not going to last until a second summer; This is not how overproduction ends. If the overall arc was moving toward recovery, we could speed it up just by getting back to normal.
Anyway, I did not check the Covid numbers in Costa Rica before booking the flights. A friend – different category of wealth, different circumstances – had flown to San José a few weeks before, and he had been totally fine. We were staying in an apartment, not a hotel, which seemed safer in terms of exposure. The friends were booking flights to England with confidence and had been going to and from the West Coast for months. I spent several weeks imagining our July on the beach and wondering if zip lining was too dangerous.
Finally, looking through my fingers, I did the minimum of due diligence and looked at the state department website. About him page for Costa Rica, a bright red flag ran across the top with the words “Level 4: do not travel.” (The UK, by contrast, is currently at Tier 3 – rethink travel.) They’re probably exaggerating, I thought. With a little googling, I can get a different result. I turned to CDC website. Another red flag, another level 4, and the warning, “Travelers should avoid all trips to Costa Rica.” Okay, but they haven’t actually banned it, so it can’t be that bad. Further research showed the type of graph with a spike that we are all familiar with. According to Johns Hopkins University, at the beginning of May the positivity rate in that part of Central America was higher than that of India and Brazil.
This was a lesson in myopia; small countries suffer on the sidelines the glare of attention that attends the larger nations now plunged into new variants. The economic pain of a second year of canceled tourist seasons is clearly as serious a threat as Covid in many parts of the world and explains the reopening despite the numbers.
Meanwhile, the decay of magical thinking: we’re fine here, so they’re probably fine there, and even if they’re not, we can move in a bubble, we can’t survive even the faintest commitment to reality. I canceled the flights and felt a sharper reminder: that there are worse things than another summer at home.