My Dilemma As A Lifelong Traveler – Is It Ethical To Travel During A Pandemic?

Great Fountain Geyser at Yellowstone National Park

It is no secret that I love to travel. It is one of the reasons I started this blog. Travel experiences stimulate me mentally and physically. When I travel, I relish focusing only on the here and now. And the more I travel, the less I see any distinctive differences between me and the other 7 billion people that inhabit this globe. For this year though, all of my best laid travel plans have gone up in smoke. Yet, despite the fact that some destinations are opening up to Americans, I am not just asking myself whether I can travel this year, but also whether I should travel.

I belong to a number of travel related Facebook groups. This helps me get the pulse of what other travelers are interested in and also gives me another venue to share my stories. Not surprising, the topic of choice these days in all the groups has to do with travel in the age of COVID-19.

In one of the Alaska travel groups, someone asked a typical question about what to expect right now for a planned trip to the state in the near future. Most comments gave some helpful advice, except for one: “stay home and kill your own kids” was the very angry reply.

At first blush, this comment seemed a little over the top and uncalled for, but it stuck with me. And the more I thought about it, the less extreme it became.

I know that every person that has died of COVID-19 was a daughter, mother, sister, aunt, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, grandparent or best friend to someone. Their death left an abrupt and unexpected gaping hole in the lives of their family and friends. A hole that should not have happened. A loss that was preventable. Just as with deaths due to drunk driving accidents, deaths due to this virus can be avoided. It made me wonder – what loved one did this Alaskan loose to respond which such deep vehemence and pain.

As of this writing, Alaska still has one of the lowest total number of COVID cases and deaths in the US. By the end of May when the state completely reopened for business, there were 10 deaths reported in the state due to the virus. Almost two months later, Alaska now has over 1000 active cases, as compared to a max of just under 200 in mid April when the state was shut down. Total deaths now are still low at “only” 18, but that is an 80% increase compared to before the state opened up.

I can’t say I blame Alaska for going back to business as usual or for opening up to travelers from other states since tourism is one of their major sources of income. The 2.25 million people who visit Alaska in the five months between May and September bring in a revenue of 2 billion or more to its residents. Most of those tourists visit on cruise ships and this summer most of the cruise ships are not running. So how is an Alaskan worker that lives all year on the money he or she makes in the 5 month tourist season going to survive if the tourists don’t come. It’s a classic case of “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

Fortunately, I visited the beautiful state of Alaska last summer so I do not feel the need to go again soon, much as I would like to. I did not mind being home in April and May since I had the chance to fully enjoy my spring flowering yard for the first time in a number of years. But now I am starting to feel a little cabin feverish. It is mid summer in the Mid Atlantic and it is hot and humid and I am getting tired of trying to get house projects done. My soul is crying for a change of scenery. My mind is yearning for a diversion. My creative eye is longing for something photogenic to photograph.

A week does not go by that I don’t look at Google maps for possible road trip ideas. I could rent a camper van or RV and head out west to the wide open spaces and see some of the many National Parks that I love (assuming I could put up with 4 to 5 days of monotonous driving).

I am clearly not the only one that is thinking like this. Visiting the National Parks is a common topic in many of the Facebook travel groups. It seems like an obvious and safer travel option. I know I could visit the parks with very little interaction with other people – I have done it before. In the last few years I traveled to Big Bend, Glacier and Yellowstone and had very minimal contact with others. Other than at the hotel and restaurants, I was contentedly enjoying the scenery with hardly any other tourists around me. And then I remember my trip to Yosemite.

It was mid April and my husband and I were visiting Yosemite for the first time. Our second day in the park was cold and wet and rainy. Despite the weather, I still did all the outdoor activities that we had planned. At dinner, the cold I had been fighting off all day was definitely taking hold. By 2 AM, I woke up congested, wheezing and having a hard time breathing. Ever since I had pneumonia 25 years ago, my lungs have always been my Achilles heel, and it is not unusual for me to develop bronchitis when I get a cold. This time though, it was worse than it had ever been before.

We called the park emergency services and a Ranger medic came very quickly to my aid since we were staying in one of the park lodges. After stabilizing my symptoms he recommended that we go to the local hospital emergency room – 2 hours away in Fresno, California. I know it was a very long night for my husband and that the drive in the dark as I was struggling to breathe was not easy for him.

That is the two edged sword of visiting the unpopulated National Parks. The parks are scenic and beautiful and unspoiled because for the most part they are far away from civilization – including extensive hospital resources in an emergency. I imagine the medical personnel in the gateway towns near the National Parks are used to dealing with injuries, broken bones and routine medical needs. But can they manage the needs of a pandemic virus, not just for the population that lives and works there but also for the surge of visitors that descend upon their community. And should they even have to strain themselves and their resources for those outside of the community they normally serve. Do I even have the right to possibly put a doctor or nurse at risk with a virus that is potentially lethal to them just because I have itchy travel feet.

I’ve been to towns like Gardiner outside of Yellowstone or the small town of Marathon near Big Bend. The towns are cute and fun to visit and it was a pleasure to support the local businesses that survive on tourism. But if I were to go now and I got ill, is it right for me to take away limited medical resources from the locals who live there year round. Locals who live in and support their community every day and who have every right to expect life saving medical treatment – as long as I and other visitors didn’t use it all up.

Even a larger city like Fairbanks, Alaska which is two hours from Denali National Park may not necessarily have more medical options. Fairbanks’ Memorial Hospital provides the only ICU in all of Alaska’s interior – about a third of the state by area – an area that is bigger than most states in the lower 48.

Actually with the state that this pandemic is in in the US shouldn’t I be doing everything I can to minimize the transmission of the virus and reduce the need for limited medical resources and not put medical personnel at unnecessary and avoidable risk?

Shouldn’t I put my personal self centered needs aside and think of the good of the many, not the good of the one?

Shouldn’t I spend my money in my own community – the community from which I benefit every day?

These are some of the questions I have been asking myself. I know that I could probably take a few road trips around the US and everything would most likely be fine for me. And would probably be fine for those I come in contact with – though I may never know that for sure. I might have to quarantine when I get back home, but that isn’t any different than how my days are right now. I would certainly be helping the economy in any of the places I traveled to.

So, I am back to my original question. Just because I can travel, does it mean that I should travel. I was hoping that by putting some of my thoughts in writing, I could bring some clarity to my dilemma.

As a trained scientist who also understands statistics quite well, I probably have a slightly better grasp of the implications of this pandemic than most. As a result, I find it very difficult to ignore the trained experts in the field or to set aside everything that my own personal training and background tells me is correct.

There is the concept of six degrees of separation – namely that I can connect myself socially to any other person on this planet in six steps. I think about that within the perspective of a pandemic where over 3 million people in the US are currently testing positive, or 10% of the country’s population.

I KNOW that every time I have to go out and I interact with another person there is a chance that I can catch or possibly transmit this virus. Even if all parties wear a mask, statistically the probability of transmission is never, ever zero – it might be low, but it is not zero.

When I interact with one person, I am interacting with each person they came in contact with in the last two weeks, and with each person that that person came in contact with and so on. I have to think that for this it is much less than six degrees of separation – probably more like two or three. That contact could represent just a few drops or a pool full of contagion for each one of us.

I could be fine. Or I could get sick and end up in the hospital. Or I could be one of the “lucky” ones who gets no symptoms from COVID at all. If that is the case, can I live with the thought that I may have unknowingly passed it on to someone else, someone more at risk.

Or that without knowing, I may have been responsible for the death of someone they loved.

And that without intent, I killed their child.

We are all someone’s child.

I know how I would feel if my child died.

I think that my should does indeed need to be a shouldn’t – at least for now.


Please stay safe.