As with most people in the United States when news of COVID-19 (at the time known only as coronavirus) first hit the airways in January 2020 I didn’t think much of it. Even as the first deaths attributed to the virus became known in February there was no panic, urgency or even much worry. We all continued with our everyday life which for me was making final preparations for a return trip to Greenland in early March.
By the time I boarded my flight from Orlando to Reykjavik, Iceland (you cannot fly directly from the US to Greenland, must fly-in through Reykjavik or Copenhagen, Denmark) the virus was starting to spread fast and it seemed like everyday brought worsening news. However I live in Florida and in the US the worst of the outbreak was in the West and things had not become as dire for us on the East. I was anxious to take off and arrive in Iceland where I would spend a day and night away from the craziness that was starting to take over my country.
Or so I thought. While Iceland was not suffering an outbreak, upon arriving at my hotel in Reykjavik COVID-19 was all that anyone spoke of and tourist everywhere were making plans to return home. Gosh, I couldn’t wait to get to Greenland where I knew that COVID-19 was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind!
Or so I thought! I arrived in Kulusuk, East Greenland on a half empty plane. It seemed that the empty seats where from tourist who cancelled guided tours at the last minute. That didn’t affect me though it may be wonder. Still, the first day and a half of my three weeks planed trip went well and I was really looking forward to photographing some of the winter life in East Greenland. Until that is I was told that in a few days Greenland’s border would be shut. I was given the option to stay until they re-opened the border, though no one new when that might be, or to leave on a plane back to Reykjavik in four days.
I was devastated with the news but after much thought I decided to stay. News back home was getting worse by the minute and in Greenland I had a safe haven, or so I thought. The next day after my decision the local authorities informed me that if I did stay I’d have to isolate from the local people and could not make contact with anyone. Even going to the grocery store was not allowed. In other words I would be in perpetual quarantine, aside from hiking alone in polar bear country. I reversed my decision and four days later was on the last flight out of East Greenland.
But the story does not end there. I still needed to return to the United States and flights from Europe were restricted though US citizens were still being allowed back into the country. My flight from Iceland to Orlando was indefinitely cancelled and I needed to find another route. After two days of being on the internet and on the phone trying to book a flight anywhere into the US I finally, after personally visiting the headquarter offices of Icelandair, was given a seat on a flight to JFK.
Reykjavik in the meantime had become a ghost town. The streets, bars, restaurants and shops were literally empty. This was my fourth time visiting Reykjavik and always the city is bustling with tourist and happenings. Now nothing, and this in a city and country that at the time only had eleven confirmed cases of COVID-19. Those eleven were locals returning from Northern Italy and were all in quarantine. It was surreal.
As was the airport when I left. An international airport always full of people coming and going suffered a gut punch and was out of breath. Nothing seemed to be moving. There was no security line only a handful of bored security guards. Restaurants and souvenir stores were opened to no one. A sad way to end a trip that I had planned for months and had look forward to with high anticipation.
At least I’d be coming home where I would have some control of my surroundings. Nevertheless getting home would not be safe. Landing at JFK on March 20th I found an un-control mass of people everywhere. Masks were hardly in use. Security lines were shoulder to shoulder and as chaotic as ever. I couldn’t believe the difference from where I just came! If ever I was in danger it was then. And as it turns out that very same day New York was declared the US outbreak epicenter.
From JFK I flew to Orlando and from there I drove a rented car to West Palm Beach. And so the nightmare ends. Or does it? As I write this in October of 2020 the pandemic still has not abated. They’re even talking of a resurgence in cases. When will it end? More importantly for me had I stayed in Greenland would I still be there, isolated and frostbitten?
Awesome to read your account of the start of Covid! It adds to the reality of the worldwide effect from the virus. My wife and I were in Houston for a funeral when we learned air travel would be shut down at any moment. Houston Intercontinental Airport was like a ghost town as we left on one of the last flights to West Palm Beach.