Panic in Paradise: What Happens When a Pandemic is Declared While You’re on Vacation

Sunrise in Fiji

The day my husband and I left for Fiji, there was one case of COVID-19 recorded in our county. The day we returned from Fiji (6 days later and 2 days earlier than planned) there were 56 cases in our county, and over 1,000 cases and 66 deaths in our home state of Washington. The United States as a whole had over 6,000 cases, and that number would more than double in a week.

This is a story about decision-making when it feels like you don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. When it feels like all the adults have left the building.

But it’s also about realizing what really matters. There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you wish you were home, snuggling your little monsters. 

The day we left for Fiji, our kids’ school was still open. There was a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Seattle, which isn’t far from us, but the whole “pandemic” thing (which had not yet been announced by WHO) felt pretty far away. As we sat in LAX, debating whether or not we should get on our flight to Fiji or just head home to Seattle, I reasoned that our family would be fine—as long as they didn’t close the schools. (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

Giant trevally fishing in Fiji
This man did catch his giant trevally, so the trip to Fiji wasn’t a total loss.

By the time we arrived at Oneta Resort on the remote island of Ono, rubbing our bleary eyes at the clear turquoise water and the palm trees swaying overhead, our school district had announced imminent school closures.

We found this out when we checked email, Facebook, and the news at the resort’s restaurant. It’s the only area in the resort with Wi-Fi.

Okay, I thought. We can do this. We have this under control. I called my mother and my mother-in-law (saints that they are) and informed them that they would get the pleasure of my kids full-time.

But the next day, the news was worse. And the day after that, worse again. It felt impossible, the rapidity with which the world was changing. Schools, restaurants, churches were shut down. Italy was falling apart. The coronavirus tally was rising rapidly, with experts making dire warnings about shortages of medical equipment and tests for the disease. People were panicking, buying up all the hand sanitizer (makes sense) and toilet paper (makes less sense).

On vacation during COVID 19
This where we gathered with our fellow travelers every evening to check our phones and lament the state of the world and worry about how we were going to get home. Every day more countries closed their borders and more flights were canceled due to the pandemic.

When you are on one continent and your three underage children are on another continent, being cared for by grandparents who fall in a “high-risk age group” category, the prospect of cancelled flights and closed borders is enough to make you hightail it home as fast as you can.

Which we did.

Not before several intense discussions, of course. We stayed in Fiji for three full days. Days full of catching giant trevally, snorkeling some of the best reefs in the world, watching palm leaves sway overhead, and generally pretending the coronavirus didn’t exist.

Oneta Resort Fiji
Staff at Oneta Resort waving goodbye to us, two days early.

Until we went to dinner and checked our phones. Our fellow travelers were a lovely British couple, a German doctor and his partner, and an Australian woman who runs a charity. I always enjoy meeting people from all over the world on our travels, but on this trip we spent less time comparing fish photos and more time anxiously checking our phones for news from the outside, where COVID-19 raged.

Finally, after our kids’ school closure date got moved up, and everyone learned the term “social distancing,” and the U.S. government prohibited travel from Europe except London, and then it prohibited travel from London, and then it prohibited travel from the U.S. to Europe, and I couldn’t relax at ALL on the beach…we changed our ticket home.

Our resort manager was fantastic. He facilitated the change in plans with ease. I no longer got to have my birthday celebration in Fiji, but the staff still sang me “Happy Birthday” a day early, at the edge of the ocean, before we set sail back to the main island.

At the airport in Nadi, we started to feel the general anxiety of the public (some people were wearing masks) but nobody stood six feet apart from one another, and they still had hand sanitizer in stock at the shops. We bought two.

On the plane from Fiji to LAX they announced a potential 14-day quarantine in the United States (which turned out not to be applicable to us) and handed out white sheets of paper asking about coronavirus symptoms and which countries you had visited. On arrival in Los Angeles, however, nobody asked for those papers or took my temperature.

Empty pandemic flight
Our flight from San Francisco to Seattle shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. This is after everyone had boarded.

Our domestic flights felt creepier. We flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then San Francisco to Seattle. On both flights, there were less than 20 passengers. We were spaced out and quiet. Alaska Airlines changed their food and beverage service, so the flight attendants walked down the aisles rarely and had limited offerings.

When we changed planes in San Francisco, it was eerie. The terminal was nearly empty. Shops were closed. That’s when we really felt like we were in a disaster movie. Bored agents at the service desk were jovial, kind, and changed our flight so we could get home sooner. I couldn’t wait to see my kids.

As of this writing, the number of coronavirus cases diagnosed in the United States each day is rising exponentially. Our government has taken extreme steps to encourage social distancing and isolation in order to restrict the spread of the novel virus, including closing schools, restaurants, churches…and borders.

None of us travel right now (or at least we shouldn’t!). Instead we hunker down with our families. I am grateful for this forced time of slowness, to be honest. One of the reasons I like to travel with my kids is it gets us away from the daily grind and forces us to be together as a family. The pandemic is doing the same, it turns out. Being away from these people when the pandemic was declared a “pandemic” was scary. As a mom, I just felt that I needed to get home, ASAP.

Fiji was lovely. But right now, watching my kids play safely in my backyard is lovelier.