Covid Travel Can Mean a Whole New Kind of Culture Shock

What does it mean to be a tourist in places with a very different take on health precautions?

By Allison Williams February 25, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

After two years of largely staying close to home, it felt good to be anywhere new. I pulled into a steakhouse in Eastern Oregon, the kind of independent, small-town eatery I’d so missed during Covid, whose sign promised “A Bit of Country Cook’n.” Two separate people had recommended it. But what was written on the restaurant’s reader board brought me to an abrupt stop, hand frozen on the car door handle: “Resist, defy, do not comply.”

By the end of 2021, the new rhythms of dining out in Seattle during the pandemic had mellowed from strange to routine—pulling up a photo of the vaccine card in a phone’s Favorites album, taking care not to flash the host a picture of a dopey dog by mistake; scrambling for a mask when the waiter approaches or donning puffy jackets for midwinter patio dining. But that song-and-dance is not on the playlist outside Seattle.

Masks had been notably rare at pit stops along my road trip—despite an active statewide indoor mandate in Oregon—but for the first time I wondered how my own KN95 would be received. Reading between the signs at the quirky little restaurant—several placards by the door sported anti-vaccine messages—the expectation of low precautions and possible hostility sent my internal risk assessor skyrocketing into treacherous territory. I retreated to the nearby Dairy Queen for dinner, where a teenager in a paper mask handed over fries and a shake through the drive-through window.

Travel in the early days of Covid was mostly about the responsibility of the traveler: Don’t bring the virus to vacation communities or overload the tiny health systems of small towns. Today the calculus is complicated; what does it mean to sample local flavor when those locals don’t share your risk tolerance?

In small towns like Roslyn, mask use can vary from Seattle norms.

Image: Ryan Dearth

Jaime Eder, Travel Oregon’s industry communications manager who lives in Portland, agrees that the difference in masking and distancing in rural areas can cause a new kind of disorientation. The group, which promotes tourism in Oregon, encourages consistency from their partners, “but it does get really challenging when it comes down to individual businesses,” she says. “We can only communicate the state guidance.”

The dynamic is not restricted to urban travelers wary of loose pandemic practices; across the country tourists lash out while on vacation, with frontline workers bearing the brunt of their antics. Airline passengers learned the hard way that pilots, making good on a threat as old as time, very much will turn that plane around when faced with bad behavior, usually mask refusal. In early 2021, a man was even arrested for spitting on a Disney World employee who insisted he wear a mask.

That consideration of who interacts with tourists is key to Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at University of Washington School of Medicine. In her work on travel and ethics, she notes that some communities are economically dependent on visitors, and jobs in that sector are the most vulnerable. The question she’d have travelers ask: “Are we helping or are we hurting?” 

In our loftiest reasoning, travel is about understanding different places and people. But as travelers visit new places, stepping onto ideological battlefields in our vacation shoes, we now consider whether our presence will help or hurt ourselves. Of course, that quandary is long familiar to people of color and other underrepresented groups who venture into the culture of a new community.

The push and pull isn’t easy on business owners. John Pool, who’s owned the Roslyn Cafe in the Central Washington town of Roslyn since 2019 (you remember it from the credits of Northern Exposure) says his is just one of four public spaces in town that require everyone to wear a mask inside. “I have less of a problem with tourists,” he says, a sizable chunk of his customer base.

On a sunny winter weekend, the picturesque downtown blocks of Roslyn are mostly out-of-towners—locals “have their fun before the weekend,” says Pool—and the amount of masking is about on par with Seattle. Ignore the hip-high snowdrifts and towering evergreens, and Roslyn’s commercial district could pass for Capitol Hill.

“People are the most stir crazy they’ve been, they want to travel,” says Travel Oregon’s Eder of the newest form of tension in visitor spaces. As mandates and public health guidance blanket whole counties and states—and eventually get lifted—an individual traveler’s experience still depends on the very individual locals. “It’s a tough nut to crack.” 

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