Series: Planning for 36 Hours in the Airport

I originally intended for this post to be a brief addition to our ongoing travel series here at Angles, sent from Granada, Spain—a perfect exercise in ancient, organic growth tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the physical landscape of the city has been distinctly shaped by its unique cultural roots. I could have told you where to find a 3€ tinto de verano that comes with a complimentary plate of jamón Ibérico at the end of a winding white-washed street, or the hike you could take to view stunning examples of Moorish architecture. 

 However, I don’t want to do that. 

The past week has marked a clear shift in the way that I, at least in my relatively comfortable position as a resident of the U.S., have perceived the outbreak of COVID-19, more commonly referred to as the novel coronavirus. The implications of this pandemic are now our reality, no longer confined to distant countries as an abstract, impersonal threat. It now has a direct impact on us, as we practice social distancing, learn remotely, and adapt to new ways of living.

When I arrived in Spain nearly two weeks ago, the number of recorded cases of COVID-19 was just shy of 500. By the time I departed the country, that figure had soared to over 10,000, continually climbing as UNC announced the move to remote instruction and the Trump administration announced a ban on travel from the Schengen Area. As my return flights were canceled, I began a chaotic journey to Madrid in an effort to exit the country. And when the urban life surrounding me began to shut down, I found myself planning for thirty-six hours in the airport before I could return home and begin my self-quarantine. 

Though they aren’t comparable to my planned travels in Granada, I’ve always enjoyed airports as a prime example of the peculiarities of liminal space. Time becomes warped to the point that it becomes arbitrary, and before you know it, you’re consuming a hamburger at 8:30AM. There’s something strangely comforting about this kind of purely transitional place, where everyone’s presence is temporary and their final destination could be anywhere. However, when you find yourself stuck in a series of airports for thirty-six hours in the midst of a global pandemic, you begin to view them in a different way. 

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Filing through an endless series of lines, surrounded by strangers with unknown departures and destinations all adorned with improperly fitted N95 masks, I realized that if we were to correctly and collectively follow the quarantine guidelines that were being issued over the intercom, this airport was the last public space we would occupy for the foreseeable future. Such public spaces are what make our cities worth living in—our plazas and parks, the bars and coffee shops I might have recommended to you in this post—and yet they are now off-limits, permeated with fear of one another. 

We first think of pandemics through a public health framework, and rightfully so—our primary concern during times like this should be preventing the spread of disease. But after spending those hours in the airport, I couldn’t help thinking that COVID-19 would be a characteristically urban problem, too. Really, our daily lives can be reduced to the spaces we occupy and those we collectively occupy them with. Even with our vast digital infrastructure, under normal circumstances, we still choose to go about our urbanized lives, sharing space together. 

Others have written about this more eloquently and with more evidence than I can, but it’s clear that the value of this shared space is incalculable, and living without it will have immediate consequences. Some have noted the possibility of a “social recession”, and we can learn from previous disasters that a lack of social infrastructure has major implications for fatality rates. This Vox article is a good primer on what I’m referring to. 

The view from Newark Liberty International Airport.

Nearing the end of my extended airport stay, as I waited in Newark, NJ to complete my CDC “screening” (having my temperature taken once, and my passport examined ten times), one of my travel companions turned to me and asked what I might miss the most about “normal” life. Every answer that initially came to mind, whether it was drinking a latte on the benches outside the Campus Y, walking through Coker Arboretum, sharing tacos before a show at Cat’s Cradle—it involved the public spaces in which I’ve come to feel at home. 

It’s difficult to tell when we’ll be able to return to those activities and rebuild our trust in our shared environment. The CDC has recommended that gatherings of more than 50 people cease for the next eight weeks, and more restrictions will inevitably come. But at some point in the future, things will have to return to normal, or at least our new normal. I could speculate about how COVID-19 will change our relationship with the city and each other, but really, no one knows. In the meantime, I’ll just remember how it was, while I wash my hands and stay home. 

About the Author: Alicia Peterson is a fourth-year undergraduate studying biostatistics and urban planning. She is interested in the impact of systemic inequities on the built environment and public health, as well as the utilization of data science techniques for understanding and addressing those issues. In her spare time, she is a consumer of third-wave coffee and an amateur curator of Spotify playlists.