Social-Distance Traveling during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Cycling through the back roads to the south of Horsetooth Reservoir is an annual adventure.

For nearly a decade, I have been taking about a 2-week trip in July or early August for a cycling/brewery vacation. Many of the trips have been to Colorado, but also Asheville, NC and Fayetteville, AR (where I am sitting now).

To insure a good place to stay, reservations must be made many months ahead of this trip; so for the summer of 2020, I had secured and apartment near Old Town in Ft. Collins, CO many weeks before the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic occurred.

Beginning in early to Mid-March, my life has been changed significantly as it has been for most of the world. Also, I and my family as well as close friends have had to make decisions about how to navigate the pandemic in terms of social distancing.

Throughout the first phase of Covid-19, the shut-down phase, and into the phased-in reopening, I have taken a practical approach, recognizing the threat of the pandemic to myself and my communal responsibility.

I have maintained a semi-normal outdoor routine (I am an avid cyclist), but have stopped group riding (riding alone or with one or a very few other cyclists). I have also restricted my “social” activities to outdoor seating or take-out.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the pandemic has been the wearing of masks; yes, I wear a mask for being indoors and especially when being indoors is crowded.

As June slipped by, then, I and a couple friends had to make a decision about the trip to Ft. Collins (which was to include a brief stop in Great Bend, KS and a few days in Fayetteville, AR). Since the U.S. is mostly in a re-opening mode—and since several states such as my home state of SC are handling that badly, with Covid-19 cases increasing at record-setting rates—we decided that a trip while maintaining the same approach to social distancing created only slightly greater risks to ourselves and others.

Our day of hiking at Estes Park was temporarily detoured since park spaces were restricted (and we were unaware) due to Covid-19.

I understand that some would disagree with this decision, and I recognize those arguments certainly have credibility. Here, however, I want to share some thoughts about moving for over about two weeks through South Carolina, Kansas, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Some of the value in taking the trips has been witnesses first-hand the various policy and political/ideological differences of moving across the country. SC has some of the more antagonistic approaches to mask, for example (possibly only outclassed by Georgia), but just before I left the state, many towns were mandating in limited ways the wearing of masks.

Masks were not required in Kansas, and many people were not wearing masks like in SC, but the extreme rurality of Great Bend (very few cases of Covid-19) and the voluntary safety policies of some businesses felt far safer than being in SC.

Great Bend, however, has not moved to expanded outdoor seating as many other states have. The positive consequence of Covid-19 for my hometown, Spartanburg, SC, has been dramatic expansion in outdoor seating, much of which will be permanent (Main Street has been closed off for all restaurants to have open-air seating now).

While we went into the trip committed to outdoor or take-out eating only, the unfortunate result has been a few instances of eating indoors—although in establishments with significant care for safety and social distancing.

A powerful experience for those of us from SC has been to live for several days in areas with strict and clear mask requirements—first in Colorado and then once we arrived in Arkansas (which has just implemented the mask requirement a couple days before we arrived).

New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins required booking seating space online and had a diligent outdoor seating and ordering policy.
Maxline Brewery in Ft. Collins was one of the few places where we sat indoors briefly; this wall art, I think, captures well the need for community as part of our economic and social obligations.

Mandatory mask culture during this pandemic is, despite what detractors suggest, extremely conducive to restarting something like a normal economy and semi-normal public socializing.

While what businesses were open or semi-open has been a challenge for visitors, the mask requirement has clearly facilitated not just businesses reopening but consumer confidence.

As some friends back home have noted, being out of SC has likely been in many ways safer than not traveling. Colorado was refreshing in the clear and consistent messages about and wearing of masks; a couple establishments had very direct and even demanding signs outside about wearing masks and there appeared absolutely no resistance or loss of patronage.

As we headed back toward SC with a few-day stop in Arkansas, I expected a return to the new-normal of SC, but arrived in Fayetteville right as the state mandated masks and many business were just reopening.

We have had trouble finding fully open restaurants, but the practices in Arkansas have been even more diligent and reassuring than Colorado—requiring masks be worn until after ordering (and not once you are seated), for example.

I head back to SC in a couple days, and I also face returning to full-time face-to-face teaching in just 3 weeks. While taking the trip has increased to some unknown level risk, I will be required to much more significantly take daily risks with the start of fall courses.

There is no returning to normal after Covid-19, and “normal” has likely always been an illusion, a mirage. The world changes beneath our feet whether we want it to or not.

In my lifetime, over almost 60 years, many of the ways of the world and life have so dramatically changed I have trouble remembering when some of now’s normal didn’t exist.

Covid-19 has forced us to rethink many things, including how we function in relationship to each other, as communities and not just individuals. That, even more so than expanded outdoor eating spaces, may be the silver lining in this dark cloud of a pandemic—but only if we make the right decisions about being responsible members of a community and not rugged and ruthless individuals.

As John Dewey implored, we humans are not either individuals or part of a community. To be fully human is to navigate our individual selves with out communal selves.

To be free is not license; freedom is not without responsibility or accountability.

Mask requirements are no different than stop signs and lights, markers of taking care to balance our individual behavior with our communal responsibilities that often mute or even trump our individual wants.

Human existence is chaotic and inherently dangerous. To live is to die, and to live with varying degrees of abandon is to flirt with an unnecessary death.

That tenuous reality has a moral imperative in that each of us must live as if our lives are precious while also directing our commitment to the lives of others as equally (if not more) precious.

I did not cavalierly choose to take this trip, but the decision to reach for some tranquility and pleasure is certainly tinged with a degree of selfishness that I do not deny even as I have made the decision with my ethical commitments fully acknowledged.

Covid-19 implores us all to reclaim our communities and intimacies for everyone in ways that sacrifices no one. It is a gross and inexcusable fatalism to suggest that goal is futile.

It is never whether or not humans are capable; it is always whether or not we have the moral will to be fully human.