Ready for an increase in screening procedures, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.
I needn’t have bothered. My journey was remarkably relaxed – at times worryingly so. In a world now governed by prescriptive rules and regulations, travelling domestically in the US remains a remarkably relaxed experience.
I breezed through the security checkpoint without any problems. The Transportation Security Administration official checked my passport and ticket, but didn’t ask any questions. I wasn’t required to fill out any forms about my health or travel history. Nobody was checking anyone’s temperatures.
The airport was far quieter than usual – domestic travel numbers, predictably, have plummeted in the US during the pandemic. But dozens of flights were still taking off for cities around the country.
There was no rule requiring you to wear a mask at the airport, and many people weren’t. That was a big change from everyday life in Washington, where face masks have become virtually ubiquitous. You aren’t allowed into most grocery stores or chemists without one.
It was the same story on my flight to Atlanta, where many people weren’t wearing a mask. Luckily the flight wasn’t too crowded: there was only one passenger for every three seats.
That hasn’t been the case for everyone. Last week Sara Nelson, the president of the US flight attendants’ union, tweeted a photo of passengers, many of whom weren’t wearing masks, packed into a four-hour domestic flight.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential contender, responded by saying: “The Trump administration’s failure to require everybody to wear masks in airports and airplanes will only lead to more sickness and death. Flight attendants and airline workers should not be forced to put their lives and health at risk.”
Under increasing pressure, several major US airlines announced on Friday (Saturday AEST) that they would soon require passengers to wear masks. The decision came a month after the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Americans cover their face in public.
When most US states were under some form of lockdown, there was little incentive for people to travel domestically. But with states such as Georgia, Texas and Florida moving to quickly ease their restrictions I wonder if that will change. I can imagine healthy young people in places like New York or Los Angeles – which remain locked down – being tempted to fly to Florida to go to the beach and drink at a bar. Especially with summer approaching.
During my two days in Albany, I was ultra-cautious. I wore a mask, washed my hands regularly and kept my distance from people. Not that anyone at Ronald Reagan Airport would have known. After returning from one of the country’s COVID-19 hotspots, I walked out of the arrivals terminal and headed home. No questions asked.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.