Everything's Treif
And Travel Is Kapu
THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2020 -- And now for something completely different ... a language lesson.

Treif is the Yiddish word for non-Kosher, but, in common usage, means unclean. And let me introduce you to kapu, the Hawaiian word for forbidden.

As with all good language lessons, let me now use our new words in a sentence and in context.

I traveled to a hotel and two restaurants this week. Everything was treif and I think travel continues to be kapu.

Yes, it's true that I'm running out of ways to talk about the Coronavirus' effect on travel. But I bestätigen--that's German for swear--that treif was the first word that came to my mind as I checked into a hotel on Monday and had my first in-restaurant experiences since March.

And kapu is really how I think when I think of travel now. Don't do it if you don't have to. It just seems wrong and risky.

Listen, we've met in this space for a long, long, long time. So as much as you know that I hold the travel industry in utter contempt, you know that I love being out there, for business and for pleasure. I may be anti-travel industry, but I am certainly not anti-travel.

And you know I'm no scaredy-cat. (Hey, I don't know a foreign-language idiom for that.) I'm a reporter and a reporter's instinct is to run toward trouble because that's where the story is. In fact, that's why I was in a hotel and two restaurants this week in the first place. To get the story--and a good diner BLT and fries.

But even as I was doing it, it seemed wrong. Unclean. Something you just should not do now. Or only do if you are prepared to take plenty of precautions and tubs of sanitizer.

Allow me to explain my current thinking.

I didn't fly this week because, well, there's nowhere to go. Few foreign places want us and, given the the vicious resurgence of the virus in the Sunbelt and many other parts of the country, few American spots seem safe. Those that are--mostly, the Northeast--are within driving distance of where I happen to be.

But we know the airline situation: They've lying about cleaning regimens and mask mandates. United and American, especially, are prepared to fill every seat and expose you to body-to-body, armrest-to-armrest contact with strangers.

Forget about middle seats and masks for a moment, though, It's the cleaning chaos that is the most worrisome. If you examine the high-sounding rhetoric of the carrier's Covid-19 promises, you realize there's no there there. No airline is promising the comprehensive deep clean you'd want between flights. What they are promising is an overnight sanitizing and some spot cleaning and wipe-downs between turns. So an aircraft you might legitimately consider spic-and-span at 6 a.m. will not be so sparkling by the second flight of the day. Or the third.

I stipulate that there is scant evidence of Coronavirus transmission from surfaces on an airline. And I accept that HEPA filters do a decent job of cleaning the recirculated air on aircraft. But what if some Sneezy Joe or Coughing Karen sends airborne particles right from their mouth or their nose into the seatbacks ahead of them?

If you're going onto a plane, I suggest wiping down any possible surface you could contact. Seats, trays, armrests, overhead locker doors, lav handles and the lav sink and commode seat. Maybe wear gloves. Sanitize your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. (And let's be honest, suggesting you not touch your face makes you want to touch your face, right?)

Just as I realized when I checked into a hotel back in May, lodgings are an endless maze of potentially contaminated touchpoints. And the hotel I checked into this week knew it.

When I walked into the lobby, the first thing I saw at the front desk--now barricaded behind plexiglass and separated from guests by a ballroom table--was a big bowl of greenish goo. A sign explained you should drop your key card into the bowl on departure. When I walked to the elevator, there was a sign festooned with rules: No more than three people in the car. Keep as much distance as possible. Do not touch your face after pushing the button for your floor. Sanitize your hands as soon as possible after touching the button.

Frankly, however, it's impossible to keep track of all the things you touch in a hotel in general and your guestroom in particular. Door, closet and drawer handles. Desktops and other surfaces. Everything and anything in the bathroom. The environmental controls. The nightstand. The bed and headboard. The coffeemaker and supplies. The mini-fridge. And, of course, the ultimate lodging Big Bad: the television remote.

I don't care what hotels claim they are doing to sanitize their rooms. They can't logically get every nook and cranny covered. If you're in a hotel room, every moment will be potentially nasty touchpoints and an endless hand-sanitizing routine. Frankly, it's exhausting and, ultimately, you'll miss something and fail to protect yourself in the end. It seems impossible.

As I walked into the first restaurant I've visited in four months, the hostess pointed to a QR code. "We don't hand out menus," she explained. "The code will give your menu or you can get it online." Then she led me past a bar that, astonishingly, was packed with folks seated shoulder-to-shoulder without masks.

The dining area was better, though. Occupied tables were well-spaced for social distancing. But as I sat down, there was no tablecloth or disposable covering on the table. And, no, I forgot to sanitize the chair arms and certainly didn't remember to sanitize the naked table.

But the devil--and the virus--is in the details. For every smart move the restaurant made--salt and pepper delivered in disposable cups--there was a bone-headed one. Why, for instance, if the restaurant thought handing out menus was unsafe, did it bring the bill in an old-fashioned, faux-leather folio? Why, in fact, did I need to handle a paper bill at all?

Oddly, a roadside diner the next day did a better job. Its menu was disposable. Food arrived in take-away containers rather than on plates. The utensils were disposable. Beverages came in disposable containers. If you asked for condiments, they arrived in a glassine envelope complete with single-use packets.

Was it elegant? No. But it felt a little less dangerous as I sat under a tent in the summer air. Besides, I got my well-done, crispy fries and my mayo-slathered BLT.

Which, you know, is treif--but genuine, old-time Yiddish treif ...