Masked or unmasked?
On a cool spring evening in San Antonio, those seemed to be the surprising choices for boat tours of San Antonio’s busy Riverwalk. Passengers could board a watercraft where everyone wore masks and practiced social distancing — or crowd onto a floating superspreader event like it was 2019.
The first stop on an eight-month, 10,000-mile road trip from Arizona to the East Coast and back was filled with surprises like that. It was a preview of how the delta variant would change the way we travel, perhaps permanently.
The COVID-19 pandemic had started to fade in parts of the United States, but the virus was still on the loose in Texas, which had recently hung up its strict mask rules. Face coverings peeled off at the New Mexico state line like red onions at Kiki’s in El Paso. Only the hotel employees at the Holiday Inn San Antonio-Riverwalk masked up. Almost none of the guests did.
A cross-country trip in 2021 shows how COVID — particularly the dangerous delta variant — affected tourism. Travelers shed their masks during the spring and hit the road with me. Even when delta cases spiked during the summer, Americans continued to travel.
This is the first of a series about an eight-month, 10,000-mile road trip around the United States during the rise and fall of the delta variant.
And now, with an uncertain autumn ahead, there’s a little bit of Texas in many of us — at least when it comes to travel. A new survey by OAG found U.S. domestic airline capacity rose 81% from June through August 2021, compared to the same period last year. And the growth will continue: 70% of all consumers surveyed have already booked flights for future travel.
But it hasn’t been an easy road. My road trip, made with my three teenagers, was marked with several unexpected turns, unforeseen obstacles, and unimaginable loss. It’s a personal journey that many other travelers have shared, and will continue to share, as the pandemic prepares its next surprise.
And surprises are coming. You can count on it.
On the first segment of our trip, from Arizona to Florida, we discovered how segregated travelers had become in their COVID attitudes. While some religiously wore their face coverings and followed medical advice, others flouted the guidelines. This divide would only deepen as we continued to motor through the American south at what turned out to be a critical time during the pandemic.
Mask segregation in San Antonio
San Antonio seemed like the ideal place for a stopover between Arizona and Florida. But, having spent the last eight months in isolation in Sedona, I expected the attitudes to be similar to the ones we experienced out west. They weren’t.
People were generally cautious about COVID in Sedona, with a few outliers. Most locals wore masks indoors, if not also outdoors. When the vaccine became available in early 2021, most neighbors and friends signed up for the shot right away. But not everyone. My son and daughter encountered an occasional vaccine dissenter when they walked through town wearing their masks. During the presidential election season, anti-vaxxers would mock them for wearing face coverings.
“Hey,” they’d shout. “Take off your mask!”
Now, walking around San Antonio in our masks, we felt like the odd ones out. Up and down the Riverwalk, most of the visitors were uncovered.
We’d visited the Alamo City four years before, and apart from the segregated watercraft, almost nothing had changed. Just a month before, Texas Governor Greg Abbott had rescinded the state’s mask mandate, which made everything look more or less normal, at least to the untrained eye.
That sense of familiarity was comforting to us. San Antonio is one of my favorite places to visit. A hike along the Riverwalk, a tour of the Alamo and lunch at Señor Veggie’s is the perfect rest day on a trip to the East Coast.
Mickey requires a face mask in Orlando
The contradictions of pandemic travel became even more apparent in Orlando, our next stop. The tourists in Florida were as maskless as the ones in Texas — except when venue rules dictated mask-wearing. Walt Disney World, for example, maintained strict masking rules, even when it appeared, however briefly, that the virus was headed for the exits.
I expected a more relaxed approach to masks, with maybe some indoor mask requirements at the theme park. But no. Disney’s rules were ironclad, and the cast members — that’s Disneyspeak for employees — were strictly enforcing them. Even Disney’s shopping and entertainment complex, Disney Springs, screened every guest for masks and checked their temperature. On a Saturday morning, long lines formed in the parking lot, creating a bottleneck at the entrance.
Despite all that, Disney World was a familiar place. We had lived in Orlando for 12 years before moving to Arizona, and so many things looked familiar. Sure, over at Disney Studios, there was the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a section with new attractions, and a brand new hotel under construction. Fortunately, the masks fit right in with many of the Star Wars characters.
At the theme park, visitors seemed to tolerate the strict mask and social distancing rules in much the same way they did the laissez-faire restrictions on the Riverwalk: they shrugged them off. There were outliers, like the rare guest who decided to make a fuss about having to wear a mask and found themselves kicked out of the park.
Other than that, Disney seemed determined to make everything look normal. But with the delta variant around the corner, maintaining the sense of normalcy would become a challenge. Delta would change the way everyone traveled.
The masks come off on Florida’s coast
As we wrapped up the first segment of our road trip, Florida had more surprises in store.
Mickey probably wouldn’t have approved of Florida’s Space Coast, where spring break was starting to wind down. Some attractions, such as Kennedy Space Center and the Brevard Zoo, still required masking. But here, for the first time since Sedona, we encountered open hostility toward masks.
When we boarded the elevator at the Beachside Suites in Cocoa Beach, an unmasked guest refused to join my son and me on the ride up. Glaring at our face coverings, he declared, “I don’t do masks.”
Off the coast of Cocoa Beach, three Disney ships had dropped anchor, waiting patiently for cruising to resume. During the pandemic, the cruise industry had run aground. At the time of my visit, with the CDC pondering strict new rules for cruise lines, a resumption of cruising seemed like a distant possibility.
The highlight of our visit was the SpaceX Crew-2 mission. The rocket lit up the night sky on its way to the International Space Station in April, giving tourism officials hope that a new space race would bring back much-needed visitors to the region.
Our final stop in the Sunshine State was in Sarasota, on the west coast. Curiously, we had another elevator episode. It happened when we stayed at Embassy Suites in downtown Sarasota. Again, both my son and I wore masks. Another hotel guest boarded the elevator without a mask. She apologized, saying she had forgotten hers. Then she asked both of us if we’d been vaccinated. We nervously shook our heads.
It was a strange moment — a fellow traveler trying to straddle the world of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, the masked and the unmasked. I felt as squeamish with elevator encounter two as I did with number one.
Looking back on the first part of our adventure, I think travelers were trying to navigate a strange new world of vaccines and masks as best they could. They had no idea that a dangerous new COVID strain was waiting in the wings and couldn’t have predicted the way the delta variant would change the way they traveled. All of them assumed that the worst of COVID was behind them, and that whichever side they landed on, it didn’t really matter.
But the worst of COVID was yet to come and, as it turns out, their actions mattered — a lot.
Next: Our delta road trip continues through Georgia and South Carolina, where tourism officials struggle to turn COVID into a distant memory.