Where were you the day the world ended? March 13, 2020 proved a significant day in global history, one where life as we knew it—pre-pandemic, that is—began to cease to exist. Most college students packed up their dorms to head home for spring break, while others packed due to their college announcing two weeks off thanks to a little-known virus slowly making its way across the country.
As for me? I was preparing a trip to paradise.
We planned the trip nearly a year in advance. My mother asked me when my first college spring break would land and if I wanted to take a trip to Hawaii. Who would turn that offer down? So, in the spring of 2019 we made plans for March of 2020. I remember just days before boarding the plane, a professor warned us against travel.
“It’s not worth the risk,” she warned.
I turned to a friend sitting next to me and laughed, joking that the beach would prove worth it.
I had no idea what would soon consume the country and the world.
We left for Hawaii March 14. The trip over seemed relatively normal. A few people wore masks. We brought sanitizing wipes and wiped down our seats before we took them. Otherwise, the flight went along business as usual. The planes sat full from Des Moines to Denver, then from Denver to Honolulu.
The first few days of the trip seemed like the perfect beach getaway. We relaxed. I read two books before the halfway point of the trip. My uncle, who traveled with a broken foot, rented a scooter to make it around the resort easier. So naturally, I hijacked the scooter to zoom around the hotel, much to the amusement of my family. We went to the hibachi restaurant at the resort, not once but twice because the steak tasted so good.
Aside from a few concerned Facebook friends, it seemed the pandemic remained far from the island.
Then my sister’s high school announced it would take two weeks off without class.
I received emails from professors who held no optimism our college classes would resume in person. Restaurants at our resort announced they would close. Our tour group at the Pearl Harbor Memorial toured as the last one before the government closed the site. In the first few days, we heard news of home and thought we could wait until we returned home to worry. It seemed like the pandemic started to reach us.
Halfway through the trip, we changed hotels. We switched out the private lagoon and Waikiki beach for a Disney owned property on the other side of the island. The second resort sat smaller and more contained. The property owned all of the restaurants onsite and let them remain open for carryout and poolside after they deemed dine in no longer safe.
We spoke with staff at the hotel who held concern about visitors. A bartender told us capacity had gone from 90% down to 25%, in less than a week. We kept our distance from other guests, trying to preserve some social distancing. We washed our hands frequently and sanitized our possessions.
Under the palm trees and surrounded by sea air, we began to wonder.
We began to wonder, was this trip really worth it? My dad, who had to work and couldn’t make the trip, sat at home, nervous. He held a fear we would get stuck in quarantine, unable to return home. Helpless, across the ocean. During the second half of our trip, states began announcing stay-at-home orders, including our home state of Iowa. Hawaii, naturally isolated, did not contain many COVID cases yet and was tentatively still open for business. Although many businesses chose to close.
Our second hotel sat in a U-shape, centered around a small water park. At the top of the U, sat a man-made inlet of a beach allowed the waves to break on rocks at the top of the lagoon, before rolling in gently to the sand. One night my aunt and I—along with my scootering uncle—walked around the beach to the rocks that sat at the top. She stayed behind while I climbed the rocks to get an uninhibited view of the sunset.
I felt like I walked to the edge of the world.
Nothing sat between me and the sunset but an open ocean. It felt as if I swam just far enough, I would reach the edge and merge into the orange glow at the horizon. I sat in silence, among the other tourists who braved the rocks. We took pictures and watched as the sun set below the sea.
Peace: the only word to describe this moment. It gave me time to think. It gave me time to feel guilt. Was my relaxing beach vacay more important than the safety of those who lived on the island? Was I self-centered for the thought to cross my mind only then? I could listen to pre-recorded ocean sounds and read at home, without endangering anyone to COVID exposure.
Those thoughts plagued me for the rest of the trip. I quit posting pictures to social media. I kept an eye on the news, seeing what the country and the state of Hawaii announced. I worried.
The return flight from Honolulu to Houston was full.
More passengers wore masks. When we exited the plane, my family waited at the gate for my uncle to deboard last, his broken foot slowing him down. I, with chronic allergies, let out a small cough, causing a stranger to move to the other side of the gate. Our next flight, from Houston to Des Moines, sat not even half full.
We left the island on March 22 and the next day Hawaii announced its own stay-at-home order. Our second resort closed two days after our check-out. My family quarantined for two weeks, not daring to even enter a grocery store, scared we could pass on the virus. Throughout the pandemic, though in the following months a few made contact with the virus, no one in my immediate family ever tested positive for COVID-19.
Lucky for us, our trip did not end in anyone contracting COVID. The worry we held seems a bit silly in retrospect, seeing how numbers sit higher in the summer of 2021 than they numbered in March of 2020, but people are traveling once again.
The guilt on the other hand—still yet to subside for me.
I still wonder, was the trip worth it? I loved my time on the beach, the books I read, the time spent with family and the nights under a clear Hawaii sky, where the stars felt so close I wanted to reach out and grab them. If we sat next to the wrong person in the airport or ran into someone sick at the grocery store just before leaving, we would possibly spread the virus.
As mask mandates end and parties ramp up, I can’t help but check the daily death toll. Over 600,000 Americans died from this virus in the last year and a half, yet we still prioritize ourselves above the good of those most vulnerable.
Not to be a bummer, but should we really celebrate the end of COVID just yet? Should we not feel a little guilt for rushing to the beaches? Or will another day come, sometime this fall, where we will watch as the world shuts down? I just hope this time, I don’t find myself on a beach the next day. I don’t know how I’ll handle the guilt.