I snuck in a day trip to Pinnacles National Park on March 15th, mere days before the Bay Area went into Coronavirus lockdown. On June 12th, I traveled for the first time since the pandemic shut down the majority of the United States and the world. It was an eye opening experience to witness the varying levels of response to the worldwide pandemic. I want to share with you my experience and why I decided to travel for non essential purposes, amidst a pandemic. But before I do, I think it’s important to share with you the level of restrictions in my San Francisco Bay Area hometown.
A Brief Overview of Bay Area Coronavirus Restrictions
San Mateo County, where I live, started operating under shelter in place on March 19th. Like many places throughout the world, all types of businesses shut their doors seemingly overnight and were forced to pivot to a remote online world. Only essential movement was allowed, to and from essential workplaces, grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals. We were not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from our homes for outdoor recreation and local beach towns had traffic signs telling people to go home.
On May 4th, these restrictions began to ease with the allowance of non-essential travel to occur within 10 miles from home. This meant I could go to the beach again as I live 7 miles away. It was exciting to discover more things to do in Pacifica during these weeks!
On June 6th, outdoor dining returned.
Once outdoor dining opened up, my wanderlust that had been lying dormant somewhere for 3.5 months returned with a vengeance. I started planning my pandemic travel escape (knowing full well the pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere).
As I started to plan I realized that Coronavirus restrictions and reopening procedures vary widely county by county and state by state. However, the Bay Area certainly was on the more conservative side of the spectrum. Side note, that’s why I wrote the Coronavirus travel guide which you can download for free, here, to help us learn about the restrictions.
Why I Decided to Travel in a Pandemic
Disclaimer: I 100% understand that even though businesses are reopening that does not mean that COVID is no longer a concern. Knowing that I would be risking infection why did I decide to travel?
I work for an essential business so throughout the pandemic I’ve continued going to work 3 days each week, working from home the other two. Even though I work in an airport, I am only in continued “contact” with two coworkers, during which we maintain social distance and wear masks. I also regularly go to the grocery store. Going to work and the grocery store increases my risk of exposure and while I haven’t had it I understand that I could be an asymptomatic carrier.
Considering this, I knew a close to home road trip was in order. A solo road trip would limit my interactions with other people while still allowing me to make progress on one of my California bucket list items: driving the PCH.
Also, as a former Athletic Trainer I am an excellent handwasher and as an introvert I am a pro at maintaining 6 feet worth of distance between myself and other humans. Plus, I’d wear my mask as needed. I could follow the CDC guidelines well and would remove myself from situations where others did not.
Besides the fact that I really wanted to get out and travel and believed I could do so safely, I also witnessed first hand the devastation the virus has had on the travel industry. I watched a packed airport become a ghost town overnight and my growing blog become stagnant. Shout out to the readers still showing up – love you guys!
This devastation hit all aspects of travel, I wanted to use my money to support the industry.
Deciding Where & How to Travel Amidst COVID
As I planned my trip, I needed to decide where to go, stay, and what I could do in my destination all of which are influenced by COVID. I also needed to make sure I wouldn’t be traveling through or to areas with limited access to medical care.
The coast was calling my name more than the mountains and I wanted to drive through Big Sur. So I searched for destinations just south of Big Sur that offered relatively inexpensive beach adjacent accommodations.
I decided on San Luis Obispo County and then set about trying to find a hotel or Airbnb in either Pismo Beach or Avila Beach. I made a number of phone calls to hotel properties to inquire about their cleaning policies and gain insider information about what exactly was open and how the city was responding to the pandemic. My main concern was that the beaches were open, I didn’t need restaurants open for dining,but I didn’t want to pay for a hotel only to not be able to go to the beach!
I think everyone had the same idea because all of the hotels were full and just as expensive as pre-COVID even though they were offering less amenities in the wake of COVID.
Ultimately, I found a hotel for one night in Pismo Beach that worked for my budget.
My plan began to take shape. I would drive Highway 1 to Pismo Beach with my food packed and a full tank of gas in order to limit unnecessary stops. So far, it sounded pretty safe to me right?
But what to do once I got there?
I wouldn’t arrive until the evening, so dinner on the beach at sunset was an obvious choice and easy to social distance. In the morning, I figured I could go for a hike or get on the water and then relax on the beach for the afternoon before driving back home. I opted for a water activity and found a kayak and SUP rental business in Avila Beach and made my advanced reservations.
On the morning of my road trip, I loaded up my car with way too much food, clothes and hand sanitizer for a one night getaway, but travel in a pandemic requires preparation!
Observations During My Drive Down the PCH
COVID? Pandemic? What’s that?
I noticed this possible nonchalance first when I stopped in Carmel for lunch. As I drove through town looking for a parking spot I noticed everything was open! People were everywhere dining outside at restaurants, strolling the sidewalks, and browsing a variety of shops from clothing stores to art galleries.
This seemed so strange to me and made me fairly uncomfortable. Still, I found a parking spot up the street from the beach, as at the time, beach parking lots were still closed, grabbed my premade sandwich from the cooler, and made my way down to the beach. It was just mid morning but people were starting to find their spot on this gorgeous stretch of a soft white sand beach.
Even though this beach was gorgeous and I had space to myself, I still felt the urge to leave, so I ate my sandwich quickly and continued on. Entering Big Sur I noticed the majority of people were respecting social distancing and mask-wearing. Although, the only time I encountered other people was when I pulled off to the side of the road for a photo. But I did stop at the recently reopened Big Sur Bakery, for a scone, before heading to Pfeiffer State Beach. All of the employees there and at the ticket booth for Pfeiffer State Beach were wearing masks.
Observations at the Hotel
The hotel where I stayed definitely had their Coronavirus prevention plan together. The receptionist was wearing a mask before I walked in and was standing behind not just the counter, but a plexiglass screen. I had to sign some paperwork for which they had sanitized pens that once I used I placed in the “used” pencil holder. The receptionist informed me that they would not be cleaning the room during my stay, but if I needed towels or anything else to call the front desk. As I was only staying one night, this did not affect me.
The room itself was clean and to be honest with you I didn’t take any precautions in terms of wiping down surfaces. I simply threw my bags on the floor and went about finding some food, because my cooler was getting empty.
Observations in Pismo Beach
Once settled in my hotel, I headed to downtown Pismo Beach for dinner.
And holy people.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that to order food to go, you had to stand in line on the sidewalk 6 feet away from the next person making it appear so crowded, but there were people everywhere.
I quickly picked a restaurant to order my fish tacos to go and enjoyed them on the much less crowded beach for sunset.
The next morning, on my way to Avila Beach for SUP, I stopped at a local coffee shop on the way for tea and a snack. There were three people working; one wore a mask, one had no mask in sight, and the third had the mask around her chin. Of the people in line, I’d say 2 of the 10 had a mask on and none of them were social distancing. Admittedly, I did not wear a mask inside but I was standing more than 6 feet away from everyone in the shop.
At the SUP rental shop, they did not allow guests inside without masks on and they’d combined restrooms with another business to focus cleaning efforts. Other than that, not much to report as I hopped in that kayak to see some otters and paddle to a “private” beach.
After my paddle I drove to Avila Barn which is a country style store with barn animals that was absolutely packed with people. Inside the store itself, masks were required but social distancing was not a thing. I felt like saying, “People – just because you have a mask on does not mean you can forget everything else!”
Instead, I just left and returned to the beach where I ordered an Acai Bowl from Avila Market, where no one, including the staff, were wearing masks or respecting social distancing. So I took my Acai Bowl to the beach which was busy but everyone maintained their distance. Plus it’s weird to sit within 6 feet of someone on the beach anyway, right?
It seemed to me that people just gave no F*** about Coronavirus or the preventative strategies to control it.
However, it is important to note that San Mateo county where I live has approximately 2,700 cases compared to the 317 cases in San Luis Obispo county. So, perhaps, they don’t need to be as stringent with the rules. And in hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have traveled from a county with a high case count to one with a low case count.
However, it was definitely a bit of a “culture shock” to see so many people out and operating as normal amidst a pandemic. The experience made me question whether or not I will continue to travel to places even within a few hours of my house.
Is it the responsible thing to do?
Honestly, having done it, I don’t think it is and I’m not planning to do so again in the near future.
What I plan to do instead is take local day trips, staying within an hour radius of home as those counties have a similar number of cases as San Mateo County. I am also looking into renting a conversion van for a week and I really need to give camping a try. I think that if and when I travel it will be to places where I can have a mix of self isolation (contactless entry, taking food to go, avoiding tourist destinations) and exploration (hikes, picnics on the beach, etc).
What are your thoughts on traveling during this time? Do you think it is a responsible thing to do or are there responsible ways to travel while staying safe and not increasing the risk of infection or transmission? I would love to know in the comments below.