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#childsafety | Is it safe to fly? Far-flung Bay Area families weigh coronavirus risk | #parenting | #parenting | #kids


When Kyle King heard his grandmother had stopped eating, his first instinct was to book a flight to Tennessee.

King lives in Berkeley, but he grew up in Greeneville, Tenn., a “beautiful but economically depressed” town known for its abundant churches and as the home of President Andrew Johnson. King’s paternal grandmother, Jean, was an important influence on his childhood there, a high school guidance counselor who hosted holiday dinners and baked the bread for communion, a “remarkable person with a lot of life.”

Now, Jean McAmis was in her late 90s, suffering from dementia, living in hospice care and suddenly refusing to eat or drink.

“My first thought was, ‘OK, how can I get out there?’” says King. But traveling home from the Bay Area requires a seven-hour flight, and the idea of bringing the coronavirus to his parents was horrifying. “My dad took the lead and said, ‘We don’t want you to do that. We don’t want you to put yourself at risk.’”

For Bay Area residents with relatives nearby, hanging out during the pandemic comes with extra precautions: masked strolls, hugs on hold and backyard dinners with people spaced 6 feet apart. But for those with loved ones a plane ride away, deciding whether and how to visit involves a more confounding set of calculations. It means considering the threat of infection while flying versus the pain of missing funerals, births and graduations. It means navigating how soon to see loved ones upon arrival and weighing the possibility of exposing vulnerable family to the virus against the idea of not seeing each other until a vaccine is complete.

“Everybody is going to draw the line differently,” says UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg. “It’s not a right or wrong, it’s where you can live your life.”

The threat of coronavirus infection during air travel starts well before the plane leaves the tarmac. There’s riding to the airport via Uber or BART, waiting at security, using a public restroom, buying a snack and walking down the jetway to board — a process that brings you into contact with strangers and the surfaces they touch every step of the way. None is particularly dangerous on its own, but each adds to the overall chance of exposure.

“Flying is an accumulation of a bunch of things that in general imply higher risk,” says Dr. Bob Wachter, chairman of UCSF’s Department of Medicine. “It is staying in fairly close contact with a whole lot of people you don’t know, it is doing that indoors, it is doing that for long periods of time.”

That is especially true of the flight itself. On an empty plane the risk is minimal, but the more people aboard, the less ability there is to maintain a safe distance and the higher the likelihood that someone might be transmitting virus.

“You don’t want somebody within 6 feet of you, which means you don’t want anybody in your row or you don’t want anybody in front of you or behind you,” Swartzberg says. “Lots of luck.”

Airports and airlines are taking measures to mitigate the risk. At San Francisco International Airport, physical distancing markers and sanitizer stations have been installed throughout the terminals, and 300 face masks are given out daily. On planes, airlines have implemented new cleaning procedures and boarding protocols. They’ve limited capacity and suspended food and beverage service to minimize contact between crew and passengers. Implementation of those policies varies substantially, however. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines have blocked middle seats, and Southwest has lowered capacity by a third. United hasn’t cut the number of tickets available, but prioritizes the selection of window and aisle seats and notifies fliers 24 hours before departure if more than 70% of tickets are sold. The airline also asks people to complete a self-assessment during check-in and confirm they haven’t experienced COVID symptoms or had close contact with someone who is infected in the past 14 days.

The airlines also have begun requiring face masks, which Wachter deems the single most important safety measure.

“To me, all of the other things are worth about 20% and universal mask wearing is worth about 80%,” he says.

But as elsewhere, masking has been a point of contention in the friendly skies. Social media posts from recent trips show bare-faced passengers and report flight attendants seemingly doing little enforcement.

Wachter has heard the same from friends who’ve traveled.





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