Risky Business:
Traveling in 2021
THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 2021 -- Living in a special place--directly on the Hudson River, adjacent to a state park and with majestic, panoramic views of rolling hills and West Point--I tend to forget about the risk of living here.

Ten miles downriver from my blessed little plot is Indian Point, a 1960s era nuclear plant that long ago outlived its design life. It lost its operating license years ago and is a clear and present environmental and radiation danger. The entire New York Metropolitan Area is threatened, but I'm in the immediate kill zone. Virtually anything that might happen at Indian Point would basically end me. In fact, over the years, my wife and I put down special bottles for the day when we got the Chernobyl-like blast and had a few final, irratiated moments to watch the river flow.

Risk. It's what's for dinner. At home or on the road, where our pandemic is kinda, sorta ending and more of us are thinking of traveling once again.

I start this way because--miracle of miracles--Indian Point closes forever tomorrow. Unless there's a zero-hour incident or glitch in the demolition of the complex--a process expected to cost more than $2 billion and take longer than a decade--I've beaten the odds. The risk of living inside the kill zone of a creaky, old nuclear plant panned out for me.

I'll live to travel another day. But what about you? Some of you have been on the road again. A few of you have traveled throughout the pandemic because your job required it. But most of you, I gather from your E-mails, are weighing the odds and assessing the risk.

Let me give you some advice about risk as someone who outlived a nuclear power plant that once boasted it could safely survive a plane strike.

Um, well, er, probably. But there is risk. No one has yet explained how more than 50 people who tested negative before they departed Delhi a few weeks ago on a Vistara charter flight developed Covid while waiting out their state-imposed quarantine in Hong Kong. There is little joy in reporting that some of the good-faith measures U.S. carriers undertook early in the pandemic probably made things worse. And, of course, the airlines are literally flying in the face of the science that says blocking middle seats was a good safety precaution. My best advice: Fly up front if you can, otherwise pay to keep the middle seat empty.

Honestly, you couldn't pay me to step on a cruise ship. (And people have tried.) But that is my default status. I just don't see the benefit of being stuck in a little box on the water for days--and can't justify the cost of those palatial suites that might be more comfortable and cosseting. So I have a built-in bias. But the CDC said today that it expects cruising from U.S. waters to return sometime this summer. The risk factor, it seems to me, is being stuck on a boat that has a Coronavirus outbreak and then being unable to find a port to take you. This one is certainly your call. But I'd wait a few months and maybe plan for mid-2022 sailings.

I've been in a number of hotels since the pandemic began and never felt unsafe. Mostly because hotels yanked almost everything that wasn't nailed down from guestrooms, closed restaurants, ended buffet breakfasts, limited during-your-stay housekeeping and made a show of the Cleaning Kabuki. (Hilton even puts the pandemic equivalent of "sanitized for your protection" toilet wrappers on entry doors.) But mostly I felt the risk at hotels was manageable because I listened when scientists said Covid was primarily an airborne virus. Later studies confirmed there was very little risk of getting it by touching inanimate objects. I'd say hotels are the least risky part of the travel experience in spring of 2021.

Rightly or wrongly, the nation is racing toward normalcy. Even New York City, last year's epicenter of grief, is revving its metaphoric engines. Mayor Bill De Blasio said today that he's targeting July 1 as the city's re-opening day. Traveling around America this year is simply a matter of how much risk you are willing to assume. Personally, I'll still avoid crowds and favor outdoor dining and concerts. And beware: Conditions may change abruptly. Fifteen Oregon counties this week were ordered back into a form of lockdown due to soaring cases.

Canada has done a terrific job managing the pandemic--and an awful job administering the vaccines. The best current estimates suggest it will be well into June before Canada even begins loosening its restrictions. Who knows when our neighbors to the north will be ready for visitors. And don't forget that the land borders have been closed since March, 2020.

As I suggested six weeks ago, risk is always balanced by economic reality. Europe was always going to open to visitors sometime this year. It was simply a matter of how. Now we have the answer: chaotic and fragmentary. The 27-nation EU hasn't acted in unison, so four nations--Cyprus, Malta, Greece and Croatia--have gone their own way and announced independent entry plans. France today targeted June 9 as the day it'll reopen to U.S. visitors--assuming they possess the still-fictitious pass sanitaire (health certificate). Outside the block, each country will naturally chart independent courses. Iceland is open already. Turkey never closed to Americans--but this week was forced into its first nationwide lockdown. The risk, of course, is yours to assess. Europe is lagging badly with vaccines, but too many nations need the tourist revenue to stay closed. Proceed with appropriate caution.

I don't see places along the Pacific Rim to assess risk because I don't see places that may soon welcome visitors. Australia and New Zealand had the devil of a time getting its trans-Tasman bubble open and neither seems eager to host outsiders. The long-discussed Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble is just getting started. China will probably stay closed for a long time. If Japan is turning away outsiders from the Summer Olympics, it's not likely to be welcoming us any time soon. India is, sadly, imploding from its current wave of Coronavirus. Thailand has scrapped even the modest plan to reopen Phuket Island to travelers. By and large, 2021 looks like an Asia-Pacific miss.

With a few exceptions, the Caribbean has been open to American travelers. The problem is getting there--airline capacity remains spotty--and the patchwork of regulations. But if you want warm beaches and don't mind the inherent risks of hurricane season--it begins June 1--the Caribbean is a sweet spot for travel.

If you've been following Will Allen's contretemps trying to get his South African trip arranged, you know how the pandemic has made Africa travel even more risky. Barring a serious need to be there, risks outweighs the travel reward this year.

Leave it to Jair Bolsonaro to offend everyone. Brazilians die in droves and he tells survivors to toughen up. He's being investigated by the legislature for his insane handling of the virus. Even Russia is pissed since his government dissed the Russian Sputnik vaccine. Brazil's awful situation--400,000 deaths with few vaccines and a lunatic leader--has overshadowed the entire continent's battle against Coronavirus. But Argentina, Colombia and Peru also have major outbreaks. South America is another area where the risk of travel this year seems too great.

Me? I've booked tickets for Boxing Day to Europe. I may take a few, short driving holidays this summer. But I won't do any other flying except for business travel.

Besides, I'm busy. I have to find the bottles of wine we put down for the now-unlikely day when Indian Point goes off. It may take some time, honestly, since we've been here 30 years and I've forgotten where we put our end-of-days supplies ...