My wife and I spent two weeks in Austin, Texas, last month, returning just a few hours before New York restrictions on travelers from Texas took effect. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (along with the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut) had just imposed travel restrictions on visitors from states with rapidly rising rates of COVID-19 infection, including Texas. We’d threaded the regulatory needle, having traveled to Texas only a couple of weeks after Texas’ ban on travel from New York had been lifted.
Should we have gone? The trip was long planned and was not recreational, although calling it “essential” would be stretching things. But was it responsible, considering both the risk we might pose to others and the risk to our own health (we’re in good health but 65+)?
We left on June 10 and returned on June 24. In the week leading up to our trip, the daily rate of new infections was nearly identical in Monroe County (Rochester) and Travis County (Austin), about five per 100,000 population. Although Rochester’s total infections were 50 percent higher as a share of the population, we’d been in near-quarantine in Rochester and were confident we would bring no virus “stowaways.”
Concluding that time spent in Austin would neither put Austin residents at risk nor increase our relative personal risk, we stuck to our plan.
The situation in Austin changed dramatically during our visit. When we left on June 24, the daily rate of infection in Austin had more than tripled to about 18 per 100,000 while Rochester’s had dropped to three. And the trend continued: In the week leading up to July 4, the daily rate in Austin hit 40 per 100,000, roughly the level of spread experienced by New York City at the end of March. Twice the rate only a week before, total cases in Austin had doubled in only 14 days.
With similar case growth in other Texas cities, New York’s experience could soon be their own. At the current rate of infection growth, Austin will hit New York City-like infection peaks in a week. Rising hospitalizations have prompted Austin’s mayor to warn of an impending shortage of ICU beds.
Public health policy in Texas has responded, if belatedly; how long will it take to bring this under control? Gov. Gregg Abbott reversed an earlier reluctance to impose a statewide mask requirement. He also is allowing individual cities to impose their own restrictions, a new power that Austin is taking seriously. Mayor Steve Adler has now prohibited gatherings of more than 10 and closed all recreational facilities.
Our decision to travel to Austin also involved risk in transit. We chose to fly—a solid 48 hours on the highways would likely have posed a greater risk of harm through an auto accident than virus risk of a few hours in the air.
The airports were eerily quiet on our departure date, although they were busier on our return. With lots of air and few travelers, the terminals felt safe. The airplanes were another story—through aggressive cancellations, American Airlines was flying full planes. The idea of leaving middle seats free is apparently fanciful, though the benefit of an empty middle seat may be illusory during a long flight.
As we now know, COVID-19 transmission is largely through the air. Although we faithfully sanitized our hands and surfaces as we traveled, our focus was on the air. We had acquired one N95 mask for my wife. At the urging of our son, I endured the odd looks of fellow passengers by donning a P95 respirator (although I waited until the doors were closed to swap it for my cotton mask). Whether through careful precautions or dumb luck, we did not contract COVID-19 during the trip.
We worry about family and friends in Austin, however. New York’s experience demonstrates that limits on public assembly, wearing of masks and social distancing really work. Rochester’s rate of infection has remained under control and New York City’s condition is steadily improving. Texas and many other states had to learn these lessons for themselves. We can’t afford to get sloppy. The virus isn’t through with us.
As for the Gardners, we’re glad to be home and have no other travel plans.
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor. All coronavirus articles are collected here.