Covid travel can mean a whole new kind of culture shock


After two years Staying close to home for the most part, it felt good to be in a new place. I pulled into an eastern Oregon steakhouse, the kind of small-town independent eatery I’d missed so much during Covid, whose sign promised “A Bit of Country Cook’n.” It was recommended by two different people. But what was written on the restaurant’s reading board brought me to an abrupt stop, my hand frozen on the car door handle: “Resist, defy, disobey.”

By the end of 2021, the new rhythms of eating in Seattle during the pandemic had gone from weird to routine — highlighting a photo of your vaccination card in a phone’s favorites album and being careful not to show the host a picture of a dumb dog by accident; reach for a mask when the waiter approaches, or don baggy jackets to dine on the patio in the dead of winter. But this song-and-dance isn’t on the playlist outside of Seattle.

Masks had been particularly rare at pit stops on my road trip — despite an active statewide indoor mandate in Oregon — but for the first time I wondered how my own KN95 would be received. As I read the signs at the quirky little restaurant—several posters on the door blazoned anti-vaccination messages—the expectation of little precaution and possible hostility sent my internal risk assessor exploding into treacherous territory. I retreated to the nearby Dairy Queen for dinner, where a teenager in a paper mask passed fries and a shake through the drive-through window.

Travel in the early days of Covid was all about the responsibility of the traveler: don’t bring the virus to holiday communities or overwhelm small towns’ tiny health systems. Today the calculation is complicated; What does it mean to sample the local flavor if these locals don’t share your risk tolerance?

Jaime Eder, Travel Oregon’s Industry Communications Manager, who lives in Portland, agrees that the difference in masking and distancing can create a new kind of disorientation in rural areas. The group, which promotes tourism in Oregon, encourages its partners to be consistent, “but it gets really difficult when it comes to individual businesses,” she says. “We can only communicate with the state leadership.”

The dynamic isn’t limited to city travelers wary of lax pandemic practices; Across the country, vacationing tourists lash out while frontline workers bear the brunt of their antics. Airline passengers have learned the hard way that pilots dealing with an ancient threat take a great deal of willpower Turn the plane over when confronted with bad behavior, they usually refuse the mask. In early 2021, a man was even arrested for spitting at a Disney World employee who insisted he wear a mask.

This consideration of who interacts with tourists is key, according to Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In her work on travel and ethics, she notes that some communities are economically dependent on visitors and jobs in this sector are most vulnerable. The question she would have travelers ask: “Are we helping or are we hurting?”

In our loftiest line of reasoning, travel is about understanding different places and people. But as travelers visit new places and enter ideological battlefields in our vacation shoes, we now consider whether our presence will help or hurt us. Of course, this dilemma has long been familiar to people of color and other underrepresented groups venturing into the culture of a new community.

The push and pull is not easy for business owners. John Pool, who has owned the Roslyn Cafe in the town of Roslyn, central Washington, since 2019 (remember from the credits of Northern exposure) says this is just one of four public spaces in the city where everyone is required to wear a mask. “I have fewer problems with tourists,” he says, a sizeable part of his client base.

On a sunny winter weekend, downtown Roslyn’s quaint blocks are mostly settled from out of town — locals “have their fun before the weekend,” Pool says — and the amount of masking is about as big as in Seattle. Ignore the waist-deep snowdrifts and towering evergreens, and Roslyn’s CBD might pass for Capitol Hill.

“People are more excited than ever, they want to travel,” says Travel Oregon’s Eder of the latest form of excitement in visitor spaces. As public health regulations and guidelines affect entire counties and states—and eventually are lifted—the experience of a single traveler still hinges on the very individual locals. “That’s a tough nut to crack.”


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