Travel in the Time of Covid— Arctic Reprise

“We knew he had Covid. But nobody said anything because we would have all been quarantined and we would have missed the rest of the trip.”

I try not to react as the middle-aged American woman spoke with her friends about her bus tour in Ireland. I was eavesdropping, after all— accidentally at first, but now intentionally.

“I just feel bad for the people sitting beside him on the plane on the way home.” Ah, so the trip was recent, since the US dropped their testing requirements, and many airlines their masking mandates.

This is why I am still careful about where I travel, and with whom. Too many people, too many governments, have taken a “don’t test, don’t tell” approach.

I am not worried right now, even though I am less than two metres from the woman, in the lounge on deck 7 of the Ocean Endeavor. We are wearing masks, dropping them to sip our coffee, pulling them back up immediately after. If you forget, a staff member will remind you.

We are all fully vaccinated and before we joined this Arctic expedition we had both a negative PCR test, within 72 hours of our flight, and a negative antigen test the night before. There is hand sanitizer everywhere and often a crew member dispensing it as you enter the dining room. Masks come off rarely: in your cabin; outside if it’s not crowded; and when you are seated, with your assigned table mates, at meals.

Even during a chaotic game of Inuktitut baseball in the village of Kimmirut, my shipmates keep their masks on.

The Arctic was closed to visitors for over two years. The population is at high risk and both medical and isolation facilities are scarce, and with low capacity. In some communities our ship is the first one in three years, so we wear our masks around the locals, even outside.

Some don’t wear masks in the zodiacs, but I keep mine on.

Yet this trip is not risk free. On my first voyage there was no Covid, but on this one someone is isolated in their cabin with a case. My most recent table mate, a lovely, elderly woman from Toronto, tells me she thinks she’s immune. She turns down the KN95 mask I try to give her to replace the small cloth one she wears every day. Another American woman felt the report of a covid case on board might be “fake news” designed to make us comply with mandates. I have heard many complaints about our having to wear masks at all, despite all passengers having had to read and sign their acknowledgement of the covid policy before they were confirmed for the trip. I suspect many would not report symptoms unless they were seriously ill, to avoid isolation.

Fixed table seating, to limit exposure. Wonderful (and safe) table mates on my first trip, fortunately!

I occasionally think about what this trip would be like without Covid. No sign up for gym, jacuzzi or sauna, and no limit of two people. Animated conversation with a drink in hand, instead of doing the Nutcracker with your mask every time you take a sip. Dancing and working out without a mask. Apparently I use face shape and mouth to recognize people, more than eyes, so without masks I might not forget names, or that I’d even talked to that person before.

And always, plan B. What if I test positive before leaving home? What if I test positive at the hotel before the flight north? What if I test positive on the trip? At least I have an outside cabin, so I could watch the scenery even if I couldn’t leave my room.

Wind blowing pack ice into Resolute, so our extraction airport has changed.

But the North is all about Plan B. Sea ice changes a route, fog cancels a landing, wind makes a kayak excursion or a planned ship path untenable. There is a funeral in the small village during our visit so no one is selling crafts and carvings at the community centre. An alternate departure point is low on aviation fuel, so our planes can’t fly from there. We breathe, and adjust.

I mask and I sanitize. I weigh the risks and decide that for me, travel is still worth it.

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