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“We Can’t Move Someone for Being Disgusting, Sir” – Traveling During Coronavirus 2019-nCoV

I’m writing this at 7:30am the morning after a flight from Milan, Italy to NYC — that’s right Milan, Italy, the international city in Lombardy, considered the hub of the Italian 2019-nCoV Coronavirus outbreak — and I’ve never felt better after this trip. I just knocked on wood. This is a trip I frequently make, multiple times a year, and with age, I’ve been prone to getting sick during travel. While I observe basic good hygiene practices, wash my hands every time I use the rest room, wash my hands before eating, on a plane use that moist toilette, and even often spray my tray table with disinfectant after reading a news report about them being a breeding ground of bacteria, planes still seemed to be petri dishes to me and no matter what I did I usually ended up with a bit of a sniffle at best, worst, a full blown cold when making this trip in the winter months. This time was different. It was of utmost importance to me that I remain in great health and, in my mind, be let in at the border: I am coming back to NYC for Women’s Travel Fest and am excited to speak on a panel this weekend about responsible tourism. So, hand sanitizer, which I do carry at times, has been my best friend over the past few weeks. Before, I just thought they bred supergerms, but, desperate times…. This was a bad flu it seems, after all. Deadly to those who already had a susceptible immune system, but I can’t afford to be sick this week and the idea of quarantine freaks me out.

I didn’t have a face-mask but I wasn’t worried about that. During Trump’s address to the union with the Coronavirus multitask force they discussed checks being done at the border/ US airports, limited travel to this area of Italy, and checks being done before you board the planes. As many American airlines like Delta and American cancelled flights to Italy, I feverishly checked Emirates to make sure my flight wasn’t canceled. My friends both Italian and American texted me asking about my flight because of Trump’s “travel ban” on Italy. “He didn’t say ban guys,” I assured them, an odd instance of umm defending Trump? “He just said limit travel and take the precautions for people from the area coming in.” It wasn’t it was a strange idea. I had friends skiing in Switzerland, a family, that had to leave their trip early because the cleaning lady didn’t want to service their room and the hotel proprietor thought it best they eat breakfast by themselves. The area of Ischia didn’t want Lombardy people coming in. Patient 0 cases in Nigeria, Brazil, Dominican Republic, North Africa and many other countries were linked Italians bringing coronavirus in. Northern Italy, birthplace of Lega, Salvini and racist and xenophobic rhetoric, was experiencing their own shaming. Unfortunately the irony was completely lost on those that needed to understand it: sinophobia has continued and hasn’t missed a beat.

I insisted Michele get to the airport early fully prepared for a quick doctor check up. Flying into Italy, hazmat looking doctors scanned our foreheads for fevers. A friend of mine who flew back to NYC during fashion week said that at JFK, they were just checking Asians. Based on what Trump said, I just knew they’d be checking everybody before we even got on the plane. Strange, not one check on this end. In a plane flying from a high-risk area. I was a little annoyed that I came so early expecting it. The airport was relatively empty for Malpensa with only two security lanes open. My plane was flying from Dubai to Milan to NYC and in my section there seem to be a smattering of white and black Italians and Americans and Indian nationals — I’m a passport creeper — I like to see the color different countries use. I was in a window seat, 48A, and there was an older Indian gentleman who just seemed off. He kept trying to push past me as a pair of Italian women figured out their luggage. When the air steward opened the cabin bin for me, he immediately lifted his luggage and expressed disappointment when I put my luggage in. All and all he seemed rude and oblivious.

I get into the window seat, an Italian guy, let’s call him GucciScarf, probably early 30s gets into the aisle seat and we have the seat in the middle free. As we both lather on some hand sanitizer and settle in, we smile. That older Indian gentleman is in the set of middle rows in the aisle seat and 2 seats next to him were free so he spreads out. Flights going well, I listen to a podcast and fall asleep before take off, as usual and heard some people maybe coughing in the background, but I’m not a full on freak it’s ok. GucciScarf and I get the meal service. I must say, it was awkward taking a menu from a woman in a facemask. I settle in and start watching Queen & Slim. Loved it, riveted for over two hours; my meal was delicious two. Grilled chicken with tomatoes and orzo. I doze off a bit after the movie, removing my headphones during this sleep and awaken to someone who sounds like they are hacking up a lung. It was the Indian gentleman lying in 48 aisle rows. He sits up and begins blowing his nose. GucciScarf wasn’t sitting, he may have been in the bathroom. Over the next 5 minutes the guy seemingly blows through his tissues, coughs without cover his mouth into the air, and did I, did I just see him pick his nose. I start spraying sanitizer furiously around me and giving him death stares. GucciScarf comes to sit down and puts his hoody up and gives me a “WTF” look as the man has another open mouth cough. I race to the bathroom and wash my hands up to elbows hoping he hasn’t been in there yet. It was about 4 hours to landing and my logic was if I went now, I might not have to go into a bathroom after him. I could hold it. I fix my scarf like a facemask and prepare to sit confined in my window bubble miserable the whole trip. As I walk back the gentleman is rubbing his face and his eyes and picking his nose. Truly disgusting. I think, is this Punk’d?! Is this a test of how I would treat another human being? Well I failed because I wanted to take a video of him and demand he be tested before being let into the US. If I’m being honest, the only reason I didn’t was because I was reading what was going on in India right now and speaking about it with an Indian national friend. Weird what compassion can make you do. He shouldn’t have been let on the plane. He is a public health risk at any time with poor hygiene, and especially right now. GucciScarf had called over a steward at this point and they were discussing in Italian. They moved to the kitchen area and I walked with them because GucciScarf was gathering his things from his seat and looked at me and said “Sorry, I can’t stay here. It’s a matter of hygiene.” “Move me too! Can I come with you?” I really said it like that. That desperate of a plea. I talk to the steward and he told me in Italian that there are empty rows in the back.

“We’re sorry. We can’t move someone for being disgusting” another steward said. I could tell she truly meant it as the number of complaints about him were rising and he seemed oblivious. I walked straight to be back and had a more relaxed flight for the next few hours. Our flight landed about 30 minutes early, 6:30pm EST and had to wait about 15 minutes. With my Global Entry, I was in a cab by 7:14. Not one check at JFK. There weren’t very many people on my flight with Global Entry it seemed. In the line there was one other woman that wasn’t crew. Still, I’ve never had a faster plane door to cab with checked luggage. Every moment from selecting my plane was flying from Milan at the kiosk, to the guy taking the printed receipt, to before walking through the exit door, I expected to be stopped, at least a fever tested held to my forehead, but nothing. For peace of mind, I’m rationalizing this as an irrational global entry perk. However, as scrutiny heightens I can tell you there is a serious lack of oversight happening between Malpensa and JFK in my experience and with this, it’s only a matter of time before 2019-nCoV becomes the pandemic we’re all worried about. We can’t halt global travel, nor would I want to, but I wouldn’t have minded being inconvenienced by some checks.

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