Forget the pandemic on a trip to the southern United States


Jekyll Island seems like the best place to try and forget about the pandemic.

The historic mansions of this famous Georgia Barrier Island, painstakingly restored to their former splendor, beg your internal clock to turn back the clock, if not to the late 1800s, at least to 2019, before COVID wreaks havoc in the world. tourism.

On a late April afternoon, pre-COVID is where most visitors wanted to be. Outside, and sometimes inside, they were maskless – and careless.

And why not? The coronavirus finally seemed to be heading for the exits, and on a sunny day, Jekyll Island was a great place to hide from the chaos of last year. They had conquered the virus.

This is the second in a series on an eight-month, 10,000-mile trip around the United States during the rise and fall of the Delta Variant. Here is the first part on how the delta variant changed travel.

During the second leg of our trip, from Georgia to South Carolina, even my kids and I started having a touch of COVID-related amnesia. The new infection rate was steadily decreasing. And honestly, it was as if the precautions taken by states like California and New York were a little extreme. Here in Georgia, with its laissez-faire mask rules, everything seemed to be fine.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

But COVID amnesia was the thread that followed us through two southern states. Through Jekyll and St. Simons Island, Edisto Beach, Savannah and Charleston. Our experience shows that while hotels, tour operators and traders urged caution, travelers themselves acted as if there had never been a pandemic. They would pay a heavy price for their reckless behavior.

Something escaped them in Georgia

On St. Simons Island, spring break was just beginning to end when we arrived. The shock of driving through Texas, with its more permissive COVID rules, had worn off. At the Publix supermarket, the signs gave my children and I permission to remove our masks if we were vaccinated. We were, so we did.

I caught up with Bud St. Pierre, the marketing director of upscale The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, for coffee to talk about the outlook for summer travel. I wondered what kind of COVID toll had on the area. And I was in another surprise.

Yes, the virus made a hole in bookings at the end of 2020, but visitors returned quickly before the holidays. As soon as people got the green light to travel, they made their reservations.

“They missed this place,” he said.

Sure. When the northeast is covered in snow, visitors to the Georgian coast enjoy a subtropical climate. And during sweltering summers, the sea breeze cools these islands by a few degrees. This makes St Simons and Jekyll the ideal vacation spots all year round.

Although resorts like the King and Prince have been careful to warn guests to practice social distancing and wear masks, most have not. Some half-heartedly disguised themselves in public spaces or followed ground distance markers, but for the most part they acted like they were, well, on vacation.

Is the pandemic over in South Carolina?

On the contrary, the situation in South Carolina was even more permissive, much to the dismay of the travel agencies I have dealt with.

They were trying to keep things as safe as possible. For example, when we pulled up to the Wyndham Ocean Ridge Club in Edisto Beach, SC, an employee gestured for me to stay in my vehicle. I gave her my name and she returned with a welcome package, along with brief instructions for my unit. The Wyndham Club calls this program the curbside recording, one of hundreds of such programs that began after the outbreak.

“We use a text messaging system to collect pre-arrival information from the owner,” General Manager Tyler VonNeida told me. “This is often the longest part of the check-in, which is now complete before the owner is on site. This allows the entire check-in process to be completed in just three to five minutes.”

Club Wyndham employees wore face masks at all times. Guests? Not really.

Our neighbors across the street were having a barbecue the night we arrived. People crowded onto their balconies, sipping beers on a humid evening.

I looked at the new case numbers and wondered if anyone was paying attention. It occurred to me that attentive people probably wouldn’t plan a timeshare week at a time like this. But stay. Why not at least try to stay a little bit safer?

In the city, generalized COVID amnesia

I took a few day trips to Savannah and Charleston, two of the area’s top tourist attractions. Here everything became clear.

These two southern cities are welcoming and flexible. And by flexible I mean they can be whatever you want them to be.

For example, Savannah may be every foodie’s first destination, or it may be a favorite spot for antique hunters. If you like to visit churches, this is also your place. But Savannah also has a darker side, well documented in history books and literature.

Now people needed these cities to be places where they could forget. And they were. I have seen many visitors toss caution to the wind.

Visitors crowded into the outdoor cafes, enjoying their shrimp and oatmeal with sweet tea. They gathered without a mask in the markets to admire folk art and counterfeit handbags. Although many companies have rules on masks, their application was inconsistent. It was the place to go to forget about COVID.

When will we forget the delta variant?

This week, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel predicted that the pandemic would be over within a year. But my travel experiences in the southern United States suggest we forgot about COVID, even though it’s still there.

Pandemic amnesia is a serious concern. In August, Popular Science covered the collective amnesia surrounding the 1918 influenza pandemic. It took only five years for the pandemic, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, became a note. almost forgotten historical footer.

I don’t think the hospitality industry wants us to forget so soon. They take precautions, like contactless recordings and tightly enforced masking rules. But when people go on vacation, they want to forget about their problems, including the possibility of a deadly COVID infection.

Other southern states were much more cautious when it came to dealing with the pandemic that subsides in late spring. We will visit some of these states in the next part of our pandemic road trip.

Next: Our delta road trip continues through Virginia, a state with deep divisions in pandemic travel.