As many of you reading this can probably attest, it is hard to keep up with time during the COVID-19 pandemic, and my idea of writing this piece in early September, somehow only came to fruition two months later. I hope the message still resonates, as we get ready to enter what some experts call the winter lockdown phase of the virus, where concerns surround the spike of COVID-19 cases in some states, mixed with the arrival of the flu season. I initially started writing this from 39,000 feet above the clouds after spending a week away from my home in Atlanta, Georgia on my annual birthday vacation in late August in Washington State. In July I wasn’t sure the trip was going to happen. Cases of COVID-19 were rising in Georgia and across the country, matching masks to our outfits had become the dreaded reality of our lives, and to make matters worse, I started to know more and more people who’d been diagnosed with COVID-19, and in some cases, some had even passed away from the virus.
I initially planned to visit the New England area, but with so many restrictions for travelers, I had to pivot locations and ended up selecting Washington for its mandatory mask mandate, and selected Bainbridge Island, in Kitsap County as home base since it was a smaller town that I felt had more control on its cases.
I thought long and hard about the trip, whether I should still take it, would I get sick, how I would protect myself, and the list goes on and on. Then I had a moment where I realized how the last six months had left me feeling exhausted. I currently work at an essential organization, helping to provide supportive services during the pandemic all while dealing with the upcoming election, racial unrest, inequality and the spotlight on the murders of Black men and women. The burden of it all honestly broke my spirit in ways I never imagined. I decided the best thing I could do for myself would be to take the break. Because I’m probably the most responsible person I know, I committed myself to doing everything I could to protect myself — because who wants to get sick (or get someone else sick) while on vacation?
I chose an airline where they were limiting the number of passengers (thanks, Southwest) and one that practices social distancing while boarding. I was pleasantly surprised at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where those in the airport were committed to wearing masks, and weren’t all on top of each other in the always hectic TSA line. I’ll admit, I was concerned but I knew I’d be vigilant.
On the plane, I wiped down everything before I touched the seat, but it was when I got in the air that I realized I was in good hands. Our flight attendant on the way to Denver doubled down in her announcements, reminding us that it wasn’t a choice, but a rule, and that it had to be worn the proper way, and not as a chin guard. She even remarked that if we fell asleep and our masks shifted, they would come around and wake us up — to be sure we fixed it. If people disagreed with her, no one dared speak up.
After landing and getting on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island Ferry, I first started to realize things were different in this part of the Pacific Northwest. I knew about the statewide face covering order, but I sensed there was something more — I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but eventually I did.
I vividly remember my first morning on the island. I’d risen early and stopped by a local coffee shop to grab some liquid motivation. It was a small shop, located right next to what seemed to be a popular garden store. A sign on the door illuminated the fact that they only wanted one person in the shop at a time, and people followed that rule, opening the door for the next person as a courtesy as they walked out the side entrance. At first I thought it was a fluke, but then I watched a dozen people be gracious enough to let someone else know their time had come. Even more shocking, everyone in my vicinity was wearing a mask. Like clockwork, as soon as their feet hit the ground from their cars they pulled out their PPE. Just minutes later, I remarked to a friend that I already felt safer here.
In Atlanta, I’d avoided dining out for months, only doing takeout and begrudgingly cooking on my own, and I knew while on vacation I’d break that rule, and eat out more. I told myself I’d take it slow on the patio dining and only stay if I felt comfortable with the social distancing. The best part of vacationing on the water? There are plenty of views for days to distract your COVID-19 anxiety.
In all fairness, I can’t really do a comparison of my current home to my vacation destination on eating — it’s not fair, especially since I haven’t been out to eat much (just four times since the pandemic started). But, I will say that in Washington, I enjoyed dining out, eating on patios with servers and front of the house staff all wearing masks, practicing social distancing and in one case, even putting up plastic barriers in between tables (looking at you, Doc’s Marina Grill). I fully intended to do takeout, but after the first night of eating out, I decided to (safely) live a little. And I wasn’t disappointed! There’s a joy in having someone ask to take your order and to eat food you didn’t have to prepare!
Another area that impressed me were local stores. As you can imagine, so many small, locally owned stores have been hit hard during this time, especially in areas that rely on tourism and visitors during the Spring and Summer months. In Bainbridge Island, shirts and items bearing #BainbridgeStrong and SOS Bainbridge could easily be spotted from coffee shops, restaurants, books stores and other specialty shops. As here in Georgia, the push is to shop local, in hopes of bringing revenue to the individuals and families who have poured their hopes, dreams and financial resources into their dream businesses. While state regulations limit the number of people who can be inside a store, many of the smaller shops I visited had unique ways of protecting customers and following the rules. One store had a rack full of party beads outside for people to wear, and if there were no beads outside, you couldn’t enter. Others had unique signs encouraging people to be patient, follow the rules and then come inside for some fun. Each time, I paused to put on my hand sanitizer, readjusted my mask and went inside to shop local. And at every register, I wished I could do more. I wished that I could buy thousands of dollars in items to help these women and men get their stores back on track. I’m not sure my purchases really impacted their bottom line, but I know that it has inspired me to continue to patronize small businesses across my own state.
While some museums and other landmarks were not open, the great outdoors were wide open and led me to discover a few gems including Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Fort Worden State Park, Point No Point Lighthouse, Lavender Farms in Sequim and so many other beautiful destinations. I will be the first to admit that the pandemic pushed me to do more outdoors and away from groups of people, but I am extremely happy I did. Along the way as I searched for fresh air, I found the peace that alluded me in the last six months.
So thank you, Washington for welcoming this southern woman with open arms. I loved every minute and for the first time in months, I felt safe. What I learned during this trip was that we all have to protect each other. Personal responsibility is something we each carry with us, and we all must do a better job during these dreaded, unprecedented times.
I can’t wait to visit again, and yes, I’ll bring my mask.
Attempting a selfie at the Bloedel Reserve in Bainbridge Island, Washington.