Is it safe to travel now?
The latest COVID surge could be bigger than the last one. Here's what it means for you
First delta, now lambda.
This is starting to feel like a zombie movie, isn't it? You know, just when you think the good guys have vanquished the last of the undead, they return with a vengeance.
This weekend, the number of COVID cases peaked again, to 168,343 new infections, yesterday. Here's what it looks like on a chart.
As I noted in this Sunday's Washington Post column (subscription required), most travelers are sticking with their summer vacation plans, but they're having second thoughts about fall and winter. That's especially true for cruises, which were iffy to begin with.
The day after I filed that story, I found evidence that travel confidence is waning in the face of the delta cases.
So is it safe to travel? The short answer — for now — is: If you're fully vaccinated, probably. If you're not vaccinated, then no.
But here's something you should know: I'm very close to revoking my blanket travel permission issued in April. If this surge gets any more surgy, I may have something to say this week.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: Do you think it's safe to travel during the delta and lambda surges? How close are you to calling off your fall or winter trip? What will it take to make you push the "cancel" button?
OK, I think this calls for some art. Lambda zombies, anyone? (Scroll down for a brief interview with the artist.)
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What's it really like out there?
I've been on the road since April. I'm in Chicago this weekend, and everything looks remarkably normal. Some stores have posted new signs that encourage everyone to wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccine status. But other than that, almost no one is wearing a mask outdoors or indoors.
Maybe that's our COVID fatigue kicking in. Many hoteliers I've spoken to here are worried but cautiously optimistic that the latest surge will be a non-event.
I spent the early part of the week in Brattleboro, Vt. Almost no one mentioned COVID. We saw few masks and zero social distancing. Only the receptionist at the Latchis Hotel, an Art Deco property in the center of town, asked for our immunization records when we checked in.
On Thursday, I met with Paul Hitelsberger, the chief operating officer of the hotel management company First Hospitality, at the Ambassador Chicago. He said business was holding steady despite the uptick in cases. The real question, he offered, was: When will corporate travel return? They were hoping to get business travelers back in the fourth quarter of this year. Now it looks like the first or second quarter of 2022 — assuming there's no fifth wave.
But, other than business travelers staying home and holding all their meetings on Zoom, things look remarkably normal. That includes air travel, which is just as chaotic as ever, as I noted in my latest Forbes story (subscription required).
What's going to happen now?
So, now what? The number of COVID cases rises every day, becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. And the lambda variant, which could be resistant to vaccines, is starting to raise serious concerns. Everyone wants to know what will happen next, and how it will affect travel.
Fortunately, we have a roadmap. We know what happened during the three previous surges. People continued to travel. At some point, the number of cases peaked. Then everyone breathed a sigh of relief and started planning their trips again — until the next surge.
But then again, each surge is a little different, so we can't really know how things will go. I mean, this one could go away quickly … or it could go off the charts.
If I had to make a prediction, it would be that delta won't be as bad as the last one. After all, roughly half the population is vaccinated. As more people get their shots in the United States, it seems unlikely that we'll see the same numbers as we did at the start of the year.
But you never know.
So is it safe to travel?
We had a lively discussion on Facebook earlier this week about whether to travel or not. You can read the whole debate here (and follow me on Facebook, if that's your thing). If you have the time to review the comments, it's worth it. As I said before, many folks are sticking with their current plans, but the future is more uncertain.
The hardest question to answer now is: Is it safe to travel? There's no one-size-fits-all answer. Are you traveling with a group or alone? By car or plane? If you’ve had all your vaccinations and you're healthy, you might — and I stress the might — be OK to travel. If you don't want to get vaccinated, or can't, then stay put.
And there's one more thing. How do you even define "safe" anymore? Does it mean you don't get infected? That you aren't at risk of infection? And don't forget the other potential problems, like getting caught in the crossfire of an inflight altercation. Those are happening with greater frequency.
Is anything safe when it comes to travel?
And that brings us to your comments. I'd love to hear from you about how you feel. Are you traveling or not? Do you feel safe? Is the threat of COVID-D overblown or are we not taking it seriously enough? Please be kind.
About the art
I'm lucky to have my brother, Dustin Elliott, with me this weekend here in Chicago. He's the artist who illustrates this newsletter. I had a chance to ask him about his latest painting, "Lambda Zombies." Dustin says he was trying to evoke the horror of the COVID variant coming back, again and again. And zombie movie mayhem. "Night Of The Living Dead, definitely," he told me. "The idea that COVID is transmissible by air, I wanted to capture that with some of the splatter. And I was trying to hide the lambda symbol in the painting." In a few days, Dustin starts Illinois State University's MFA program, so if you're in the area, please reach out to him if you're interested in commissioning a piece. Here's how to contact him.