I knew going on vacation during a pandemic wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I risked coming into close contact with strangers on TSA lines and baggage carousels. I understood Florida restaurants could be overcrowded and under-regulated, the golf courses lawless, the pools too populated, the casinos virtual coronavirus petri dishes.
What I didn’t realize was how a greedy airline would exponentially increase my risk of dying from COVID-19, with the full blessing of my government.
I had originally booked a vacation to a Caribbean beach and golf resort. The Bahamian government seemed to be effectively mitigating risk by having all travelers produce a negative COVID test result before flying there, and get tested again upon arrival at the resort. But the CDC still listed the country as a Level 3 risk — nonessential travel not recommended — so I canceled.
There was always Florida, just left of the Bahamas and with fewer conch fritters.
The CDC and FAA had little to say about air travel to the Sunshine State; no negative test results or even temperature-taking were required. Just sign an easy form on your phone saying you don’t have symptoms, promise to social distance and to quarantine once you’re back, yadda yadda. The complete lack of urgency was almost comforting.
But clues that the skies would not be so friendly began arriving in text messages from the airline saying it expected a “fuller flight” and that I could change to “other flight options” at no extra charge.
The airline text didn’t actually point to, or give data on, these less-crowded flights. And I would have to cancel my weekend flights to presumably book a midweek nighttime route. I’m sure people back at the hedge fund wouldn’t mind me taking a few extra days with no notice. If I worked at a hedge fund.
So onward I marched through Newark-Liberty’s Terminal C.
The waiting area was my first warning to turn back. No chairs were roped off for social distancing and my friend was immediately asked by an older woman if she could sit next to him. Nice that she was polite, but couldn’t Typhoid Mary see the row of empty seats across the way?
Common sense eroded further once we boarded the Embraer aircraft, with its 24 rows of four seats, two on each side of a center aisle.
Every seat was filled.
Apparently, six feet of social distancing is a foreign concept in the deadly skies. You had people sitting, at most, two feet in front of you, two feet in back of you and one person inches to the side of you. You would have had more room on a rush-hour rickshaw in downtown Mumbai.
In New York City right now, you can’t stand at a bar, and restaurants must operate at only 35 percent of capacity. Madison Square Garden, with its 150-foot-high rafters, can fill only 10 percent of its seats — and every fan must have proof of a negative COVID test. Even cavernous outdoor stadiums are being held to a 10-percent (or less) limit right now.
But in this flying aluminum beer can, where non-screened passengers would be breathing the same communal air for three hours, seemingly not a thought was given to cutting capacity. With a plane half full, they could have alternated rows of empty seats and doubled the space between passengers.
Maybe I’ve been living in Cuomo-land too long, but I was stunned to learn the government allows this. It’s every airline for themselves. A few have limited capacity. But many, like United, fully book flights. I understand the airlines are bleeding money and need customers. I also know they are about to get another $14 billion in taxpayer cash in the latest COVID bill, their third bailout in a year. They can afford to fly with fewer fannies in the seats for a little while longer.
United says blocking off seats is only a “public relations strategy — not a safety strategy,” and it is instead focused on enforcing mask-wearing and disinfecting planes with “hospital-grade” cleaners.
That didn’t improve passengers’ peace of mind. We sat in our casket-like seats, afraid to move about the cabin, scared to cough, terrified to hear a sneeze, and eyeing each other suspiciously. Is that girl’s mask slipping under her nostrils? The guy with the goatee doesn’t seem to have a proper seal. You could practically hear the Xanax bottles popping.
The good news is that most commercial jets have pretty good air filtering and circulation systems. Powerful fans and high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters “are 99.9 percent effective” in removing particulate contaminants such as COVID-19, experts say.
The bad news: That filter won’t do much when Mike from Massapequa sneezes, his sagging Metallica mask failing to catch all of the 30,000 droplets — potentially carrying 200 million virus particles, traveling at 200 mph — from his nose to your neck.
Paul McPolin is The Post’s deputy Sunday editor, and is known to travel only as far as his Super Bowl pool winnings will take him. After vacation, he finally got his second vaccine shot.