Covid ruined their summer vacation plans

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Many American vacations have been interrupted by the Covid-19 virus.  (Illustration by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post; photo by James Braund/Getty Images)
Many American vacations have been interrupted by the Covid-19 virus. (Illustration by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post; photo by James Braund/Getty Images)

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A couple celebrated their 49th anniversary isolated in their Vienna hotel room, racking up $3,000 in extra lodging costs. An annual beach house getaway ended with 14 of the 29 guests testing positive for covid. A woman discovered she was infected after landing in Seattle for a family reunion — and decided to keep celebrating, double masked and socially distanced.

As many Americans learned this summer: The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.

Subvariants of omicron were so contagious that those who had managed to avoid contracting coronavirus for more than two years could no longer outrun it, forcing even the vaccinated to cancel trips, isolate abroad or overhaul itineraries. Those who had already been stricken with covid were struck again.

The good news: We are much better shielded from serious complications, thanks to boosters and immunity from past bouts of coronavirus.

The bad news: Those mild infections still ruin long-awaited plans.

As vacation season draws to a close, many are looking back on trips that were memorable for more than a bad sunburn. The Washington Post asked readers to share how they weighed risks while trying to enjoy long-awaited travel with loved ones. Here are their stories:

A once-in-a-decade opportunity

Deborah and Delmer Harris have dreamed of watching the Passion play since they were children. The elaborate five-hour-long theater production about Jesus’ life is performed once a decade in the tiny German town of Oberammergau.

The 70-year-old Gaithersburg, Md., couple felt the play’s 2022 revival might be their last chance. They booked a 12-day Viking River cruise through Europe so they could attend the play in June.

They watched in awe as doves swooped above the stage and the actors portraying Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. They enjoyed a three-hour indoor dinner with hundreds of guests. That’s where they suspect they contracted covid, despite having had two booster shots each.

Forced by the cruise line to disembark and quarantine at a hotel for 10 days during a scheduled stop in Vienna, they missed chances to visit Budapest and Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, and admire the rolling hills of the Wachau Valley from the top deck of the cruise liner. The couple celebrated their 49th anniversary stuck in their hotel room instead of going to a Mozart and Strauss concert. A cruise representative delivered three longstemmed red roses and a box of apple strudel.

They are still pressing their travel insurance company to reimburse $3,000 in unexpected hotel costs and about $7,000 for the portions of the cruise they missed.

But they don’t regret their decision.

“You have to live your life,” Deborah Harris said.

The man-cation that carried on

The dreaded second line appeared on the rapid coronavirus test the day after Jeff Smith arrived at a friend’s house in Seattle. Now the guys faced a choice: Should their man-cation go on?

They had canceled the annual gathering of gaming, grilling and geekery in 2020 because of the pandemic. The 2021 gathering was relocated from Seattle to Chicago, where Smith lives, because he had just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer.

This year, they were aware that any time with Smith was precious, even though he is in remission. So all 10 friends decided to stay, wearing masks.

Seven eventually tested positive, mostly experiencing mild symptoms like fatigue. Smith, 44, said his symptoms didn’t differ much from the side effects of his cancer medication — a runny nose and cough — although he couldn’t taste the barbecue.

It wasn’t the best trip to debut complicated multi-hour board games because of their covid brain fog. So they stuck to simple and familiar games such as one where spring-loaded monkeys toss coconuts into buckets.

Returning home was trickier. Smith, who can work remotely as an online infrastructure engineering manager, stayed behind in his friend’s house until his symptoms eased. Those who didn’t have flexibility in their work and child care schedules stuck to their scheduled flights, flying with coronavirus but masked.

After all, Smith said, airlines and government agencies don’t make it easy — or affordable — to alter plans because of covid.

***

The youngest couldn’t get vaccinated in time to fly

Infecting elderly parents

A freshly diagnosed Deb Trevor headed straight to her parents’ spare bedroom to isolate, lest their 60th wedding anniversary in South Carolina become a superspreader event. Covid was already a touchy subject for a house divided by politics.

Trevor, visiting from Colorado, said relatives dismissed her coronavirus concerns when she didn’t feel well earlier in the day because everyone was vaccinated. Some questioned the value of masking at the reunion. One brother who was previously infected told her covid was over and assured her she’d be fine if she had it.

To Trevor’s horror, her 82-year-old mother would pop into the room unmasked from time to time. After her 87-year-old father fell ill with covid, too, and her mother still wouldn’t take precautions, Trevor gave up isolating to help care for them. Her mother became sick as well. Not long after taking her postponed flight home, Trevor drove back to South Carolina when her mom was hospitalized with numbness on her left side that doctors suspected was covidrelated.

Trevor believes the best she can do is make sure her parents who are vaccinated stay up to date on their boosters because she worries the conservative media they consume will dissuade them from doing so.

“I wish I lived closer,” she said.

***

Flew into town, but forced to reunite over Zoom

29 relatives at a beach trip. Half got sick.

Corinne Edwards’s sister had just tested positive. The other siblings gathered outside a Southern Maryland beach house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay to figure out what to do.

There were 29 relatives — including Edwards’ seven siblings — in two adjacent houses. Three days of the family beach week left to go. Everyone had been vaccinated.

The trip would go on: They would wear masks indoors, eat at picnic tables outside and isolate anyone who became infected to separate bedrooms.

The next day Edwards became sick. in total, 14 members of the family would test positive, some becoming so ill they could barely get out of bed.

Edwards’ mother felt pangs of guilt about the gathering that turned into a superspreader event, but her children assured her they were happy to reunite.

“I said to my mom, ‘We will never forget 2022,’” said Edwards, 44. “When was the last time as a family we got through something like this together?”

Besides, she said, it wasn’t as bad as the time a stomach bug struck another family gathering. There weren’t enough toilets for all the puking people.

***

A 23-hour drive home

“Oh crap,” Sabrina Gillmore heard her husband, John, say from the hotel bathroom where he was taking a rapid coronavirus test.

It was like a big record scratch three days into their week-long San Diego trip for their teenage son’s cardistry convention, the first time the Gillmores had flown on a plane since the pandemic began.

Their 17-year-old son, Lucas, was also infected and had to skip the last day of the convention for the art of non-magical displays of playing cards.

John ended up spending Father’s Day isolated in their hotel room, trying to book a rental car to get home to the Seattle area so they would not have to fly while contagious.

They left a day earlier than planned, stopping at Crater Lake, the stunning volcanic lake in Oregon’s sole national park, on their two-day trip to Washington state. When they arrived home, Sabrina tested positive.

John said he was trying to “do the right thing” and limit spread. Doing so meant spending 23 hours on the road and cost $328.86 in rental car fees, plus summer’s skyrocketing gas prices. They were unable to get their flight refunded.

“I’m sure the vast majority of people hop on a flight and hope for the best,” Sabrina added. “Or they don’t even care.”

Right before vacation, the virus strikes

Stuck abroad — with travel insurance

Patricia Johnson liked Portugal’s covid-cautious culture as she and her husband spent four weeks scoping out the country for an expat life to take a break from Texas — where vaccines and masks are far less popular. The African American couple were searching for a new home where they would feel welcome and safe, shielded from the racism they experience in the United States.

Her husband became sick with a headache and coughing fits toward the end of the trip but tested negative the day before their flight. That’s when Patricia, 59, tested positive — leaving them stranded and unable to check in for their flight because of international flight requirements at the time.

In a stroke of luck, the VRBO hosting the Johnsons had a last-minute cancellation and allowed them to isolate in another apartment at a discounted rate of $480 for six additional days. The fare difference for a rescheduled flight clocked in at nearly $1,000. Fortunately, the couple had purchased travel insurance, which covered the extra costs of housing and airfare.

Johnson spent the quarantine battling brain fog and a cough that at times left her struggling to breathe.

The Johnsons already have a return trip to Portugal planned for October to set up a bank account and make preparations for their likely relocation. They plan to buy travel insurance through the same carrier that promptly reimbursed them.

“Portugal is high marks across the board,” Johnson said. “It was a really lovely experience — except for the covid.”

Ever since their parents died, it was important for Ann Haber to see her two brothers and their families every year.

The 61-year-old Arizona resident had just recovered from covid — conveniently timed to spare disruptions to her trip to Seattle. Or so she thought. She had tested negative before boarding her flight and wore an N95 mask because she had a stuffy nose and a sore throat. But she tested positive after arriving, torn between the potential of exposing family or exposing fellow passengers if she flew back home.

The Habers decided to try to celebrate safely instead.

The VRBO property had a detached cottage where she could isolate. She wore a surgical mask over a KN95 near her family and ate alone at another table. Everyone donned masks, canceled some day trips and kept the windows down when riding in the same car.

No one else got sick. Six days later, Haber felt better but was still testing positive when she flew home wearing an N95 mask.

Her brother Jon Haber, 68, said the reunion might have been canceled had a relative been immunocompromised, if it were winter, or if his sister had to stay in the same house.

“My general take home was this is maybe what the future looks like,” Jonathan said. “This is the kind of situation that a lot of people are going to be in from time to time, and you can manage it.”