Now that all the restaurants, bars, schools, and gyms are closing, the question flying around my group texts has become, “Is it OK for me to go home to my parents’ house at this point in the coronavirus outbreak?” The answer, quite simply, is no, it’s definitely not OK. If there was ever a window when it was safe to leave your current home to stay with loved ones for the foreseeable future, it’s long since closed. The facts have been clear and unchanged in the United States for well over a week: Getting on an airplane, bus, or train is a dangerous idea; traveling from one city to another—even in a car you or your family member owns—could kickstart a new outbreak in your hometown (or in a town along the route); and interacting with people could be literally fatal.
I get it. I dealt with this same denial, too. Even as I spent last week writing articles for this very website instructing people to cancel travel plans and stay put, I kept ignoring my own advice, and spending my evenings browsing increasingly cheap flights home. My desire to be home with my mom during this stressful time was stronger than all the facts rattling around in my head. I kept thinking it would be easier to spread out and socially distance in Texas; that I’d be less prone to depressive and anxious habits in her airy house, versus my little apartment, where I keep looking out the window and feeling scared of… I don’t know what. My neighbors? The air???
It might actually be harder to hear you can’t see your family for the foreseeable future than it is to be told you can’t go out to bars anymore. Going home home feels like the last available escape from an apartment that suddenly feels too lonely and depressing. Home is where people who can comfort and take care of you are. The uncertainties of the situation are terrifying and nothing feels comfortable anymore; under normal circumstances, one solution would be: Go see your family. But these aren’t normal circumstances.
To flatten the curve and prevent a surge—that is, to save lives—we’ll have to do things we normally wouldn’t. We are in a situation where more drastic actions, sooner, will likely mean we spend less time living like this overall. The more we bend the rules for personal exceptions, the longer we potentially prolong this way-less-than-ideal situation for everyone involved. Staying put is not a matter of each person’s personal risk to get sick or die, but of their potential to move the virus around to other people, especially vulnerable people. The science is unmistakably clear: the less movement of absolutely everyone, the better. (This Washington Post disease-spread simulator is a great way to see this in action.)
Public health experts have been saying this for weeks, and yet my friends are still asking if they’re “allowed” to go home. It feels like they’re just entering the first stage of grief, in denial about how dire the current situation actually is.
On Thursday afternoon, I was 90 percent sure I was going to get on a flight to Texas, so I could sit through coronavirus isolation with my mom in her sunny house, instead of with a roommate in my tiny apartment in downtown Manhattan. Later that evening, my 83-year-old grandpa called and asked me to please not get on a plane; he was worried about me. That was what finally convinced me I couldn’t go; I spent all of Friday crying, accepting I was stuck here.
Late Saturday morning, my mom called me from her parents’ farm. In the time since we’d talked, my grandpa had tripped and fallen in his garden, breaking a vertebrae in his neck. My mom had driven out to help my granny do the things he’s not supposed to for a while, like feed their cows and herd the new calves that were born last week.
I saw a tweet over and over again this weekend that said that you won’t ever really know if what you’re doing to socially isolate yourself will personally help; “that’s the nature of public health.” I actually knew it right away. If I’d flown home from New York City, where the number of coronavirus cases multiplied exponentially in the time it took for my grandpa to get hurt, and hugged my mom in the pickup line at the Houston airport like I always do, she would’ve taken whatever germs were on me to my grandparents’ house. Obviously I can’t know what viruses I might or might not have been carrying or what would have happened next, but I know from all the charts and graphs that my 80-year-old grandparents are the most vulnerable to severe, deadly infection.
Unless you’re stranded abroad and need to get back home, or have some emergency situation that dictates you leave where you currently are, there’s no real justification for doing so. There’s no loophole to poke, or case to make for being an exception to the rule. I’m sorry, and it sucks. Presented with more information and access to epidemiologists than most, I still tried to convince myself of the same thing. But you’re not the exception and neither am I. None of us are.
I’m currently sitting in my apartment and have no idea how long I’ll be here. I’m scared and have been losing sleep over it. But even if being here right now fucking sucks, I’m glad I didn’t book a $50 flight and put countless lives at risk. It’s easy to feel like I’d be better off if I’d left when I could’ve, as if I ever could’ve known how long the window would be open for, but I know now the best decision was always for me to stay where I am. It’s pointless and painful to try and imagine being in a different situation than the one I’m in, because the one I’m in is still relatively lucky and nice. There isn’t a loophole to pursue; if you’re looking for one, the answer is no: You shouldn’t and really can’t travel home.
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