Coronavirus Fears Change Travel Plans

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Robert Burns

I expected to be in Texas by now. Instead, I am typing this in a crummy hotel near the Portland airport because I decided at the last minute not to go to the AWP conference in San Antonio and follow it up by visiting friends and exploring Texas by car. Even as I drove north toward Portland for my “park and fly” hotel, I was debating whether or not I’d really get on the plane. Why?

Sure, I hate flying, and I hate leaving Annie, and I hate being without my piano and guitar, and and and . . . It was none of that. It was the coronavirus and not even so much that I was afraid of getting sick or spreading the disease, although those are worthy fears. No, it was that publishers, editors and speakers were cancelling out of the conference by the dozen. The mayor of San Antonio had declared a medical emergency, mostly because one woman in quarantine was released for 12 hours and turned out to have the virus. She’s back in quarantine now.

My own publisher of Gravel Road Ahead cancelled Tuesday morning, and the publisher for The Widow at the Piano wasn’t going in the first place. All those famous writers I had hoped to see, all those connections I had hoped to make—it was not likely to happen. Not because of the coronavirus but FEAR of the coronavirus, a flu-like illness that has killed only a few people in the U.S. so far but many more in Asia.

It does seem to be spreading rather rapidly, although you can find plenty of people who say it’s no big deal and that folks are making too much of it. I don’t know. But my conference was not going to offer what I wanted.

I prayed, asking God, go or no go? Everything was all set up. My color-coordinated clothes, books and handouts were packed. Annie’s sleep-in dogsitter was on her way.

But if I didn’t go to Texas, I could do all the things I hadn’t had time to do before I left, like get my hair cut and pick up more medicine for my dog. I could go to the Grotto, Oregon gardens, and Mt. Angel. I could shop in all those stores we don’t have at home. I could sample guitars at the music stores and promote my books at the bookstores.

When I was an hour from Portland, my friend called to say she was sick and not up to company so I should not come.

Okay, God, that’s a pretty clear sign. I would go as far as Portland and no farther.

I spent three hours on the phone trying to cancel my reservations, most of that time waiting for AAA, through which I made the reservations. I suspect thousands of people are cancelling their trip plans. The obnoxious hold music went on forever. Finally, I got a guy with a Jamaican accent who informed me that my plane tickets were non-refundable and I might as well just not show up. Then he put me back on hold for a young woman who told me I’d pay a $200 penalty on my cancelled rental car. A young woman in Massachusetts told me she could not do anything about my reservation at the Marriott in San Antonio; I should call back in the morning. (When I did, a Texas woman told me she would cancel the reservation. Refund? Too late.) Calls done, I took myself out to dinner at the Shilo Inn and got drunk on red wine.

As for the conference, they’re applying this year’s fees to next year’s shindig in Kansas City. They should have just cancelled. I understand that they have worked on it all year, but throwing a poor conference full of empty tables and missing speakers surely is worse than not doing it at all.

I’m going to be out $1,500 or so for the privilege of not going to San Antonio. I looked forward to it. I bought the tee shirt. I envisioned walking along the river outside the hotel. Well, I’ll go to Texas another time—by car. This week, I’ll enjoy the local attractions and go home early.

Meanwhile, the world is beginning to panic. It’s probably justified in China and other countries where lots of people are sick and dying. But even on the Oregon coast, where not a single person has been diagnosed with the disease, people are stocking up on hand sanitizer, water and toilet paper. Our church has decided we will not have wine at Communion and should not shake hands or touch in any way. Okay, we have done that during flu epidemics, and this virus is trickier because people are contagious for days before they show symptoms. While I’m healthy, some of my friends are not, and I sure wouldn’t want to make them sick.

Yet, at this Super 8 where nothing looks clean, I was at the breakfast bar trying to separate a lid from the pile for my Styrofoam coffee cup and thought about how other people have also touched the whole stack trying to get a lid. They have touched the coffee urns, the tongs and lids for the food, the buttons on the orange juice machine, and the dipper for the waffle iron. Should hotels shut down their breakfast rooms? What about restaurants, stores, gyms, swimming pools, schools, businesses? How far can the precautions logically go? Will this lead to an economic collapse?

I feel very safe from illness at home in the woods with Annie, but if you step out at all—and you have to at some point—you take a risk, whether you’re in Texas or anywhere else.

What’s happening where you live? Are you afraid you’ll get coronavirus? Have you cancelled travel plans or stocked up on supplies? Let’s talk about it.