Reporter’s Notebook: The Ups, But Mostly Downs of Traveling From West Virginia to Rome During COVID

ROME – “All changed, changed utterly,” Ireland’s WB Yeats once lamented in a poem. Being caught between the past and something as yet undefined being born is indeed discomfiting. Everything is familiar yet different. Yeats came to mind during my two-day journey this month back to my European home from the United States.

I am not sure I want to repeat the experience.

The halcyon pre-COVID days of international travel are over — at least for the time being, and maybe for longer than we are willing to accept.

“I call it COVID-crazy,” a JetBlue pilot lamented the night before I flew out from New York’s JFK airport. He agreed with President Joe Biden’s recent remark that the U.S. is on the move again — but he had a different perspective on it.

“There are a lot of people traveling who don’t normally travel and don’t know how to behave. There were fisticuffs at my gate today,” he added. Apparently passengers were over-keen to board first so they could grab seats near the front, presumably so they could be among the first to disembark at the destination.

Airport hotels have seen a surge in bookings the past month. The Hilton hotel at JFK is running at around 50 percent occupancy during the week and is fully booked at weekends. “People just want to travel,” a receptionist told me.

But while domestic U.S. travel may be picking up now that isn’t the case yet with international travel. The EU still has a ban in place for leisure travel form the U.S., although several south European countries are planning re-opening for vaccinated American tourists.

The upside to my journey from the wilds of West Virginia to Rome was in fact the scarcity of other passengers. The Airbus was empty. The downside was virtually everything else, including the form-filling and database registrations to enter New York, the European Union and Italy.

I had opted for a so-called COVID-safety flight to Rome with Delta Air Lines from New York, which meant I wouldn’t have to endure a period of quarantine on arrival. But that entailed having three COVID tests: a PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before departure at a cost of $220, a rapid antigen test taken no more than 4.5 hours before boarding, and then another antigen test on arrival at Rome’s airport.

The journey also involved carrying more paperwork than I recall having to have in past times when entering the document-obsessed Soviet Union or any of its equally guarded communist satellites in Central Europe. At JFK airport we all struggled — passengers and staff included — with the forms and database requirements.

The EU’s passenger locator form, which had to be completed online, challenged everyone’s efforts to tell the truth. The database gleefully rejected passport numbers and the details of residency cards and driving licenses. Phone numbers and addresses were also blocked routinely for being erroneous. Head-scratching Italians and non-Italians, baffled residents and non-residents alike, were all stumped by a computer that just wanted to say, “no.”

In the end as the line of desperate passengers became ever more agitated we struck on the idea that we needed to be economical with the truth and offer anything we could come up with to coax affirmative reactions. The struggle with the malfunctioning database doesn’t augur well for when (and if) the EU’s fractious member states strike an agreement on digital vaccine passports, something that has so far eluded them.

Everyone had their own story to tell about why they were traveling — from work demands to celebrating a landmark birthday of an elderly relative who they hadn’t seen for more than a year. Retirees who had bought houses just before the pandemic had lost patience with a long delay to their carefully planned post-work lives.

Others had more immediately gloomy reasons for the trip. “I am trying to get to Sardinia to see my 89-year-old mom before she dies from COVID,” confided Carmella, a dark-haired Italian woman. She only just made the flight having to secure a hurried PCR test and a rapid antigen test at the same time at the gate.

On arrival Rome’s normally crowded airport was eerily deserted and silent. The process for our rapid antigen tests took about an hour — and there was yet another encounter with a database, this time a trouble-free one run by the regional Lazio health authority. In the immigration hall, bored officials almost competed for the few passengers to process. Outside in the bright sunshine we were heavily outnumbered by taxi drivers anxiously touting for a fare.

Not the end yet

Italians — especially those in the hospitality and tourism sectors — are desperate for foreign travel to start up again. But while the average number of cases and deaths reported each day has fallen the last few weeks, with infections 35% of the peak reported in November, the country is still struggling to finish with a devastating third wave of infections.

Italian authorities reported 144 coronavirus-related deaths Sunday with a daily tally of new infections of 9,148. That is down from the day before when more than 12,000 new cases were reported. Hardly surprisingly authorities are highly cautious. Italy has registered 121,177 deaths linked to COVID-19 since the pandemic’s outbreak last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh highest in the world.

The coalition government led by Mario Draghi has begun relaxing some of its pandemic restrictions after a stringent lockdown over Easter, but not for all regions. The rate of infections still remains stubbornly high in the south of the country and six regions, including Calabria and Puglia, remain under lockdowns, being deemed red zones.

And despite protests and lobbying by cash-strapped tourism-related businesses, the government has so far refused to relax strict rules on international travel and other trips deemed non-essential.

An ordinance last month extended quarantine requirements for travelers arriving from other EU countries and tightened the rules on people arriving from the pandemic-hit Indian sub-continent.

Government ministers say they hope to allow tourism to resume by early next month, but they stress it will all depend on the progress of the vaccination campaign, which as in the rest of the EU has been sluggish.

The risks of international travel remain clear. While all the passengers from my U.S. flight proved negative on arrival, that wasn’t the case last week with two flights from India. On Wednesday, 23 passengers on a flight from New Delhi tested positive on arrival and on Thursday 30 passengers and two crew members tested positive from an Air India flight from Amritsar.

Italy has now tightened restrictions on all travel from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Under the new rules, only Italian citizens who live permanently in Italy are allowed to enter from any of the three countries. Previously foreign nationals resident in Italy had also been allowed to return.

And anyone allowed to enter from those three countries must now spend ten days in a so-called “COVID hotel” where they are monitored by local health authorities.

Source: Voice of America