Anytime I fill out a survey about what I enjoy, travel with my husband is at the very top of the list. After almost twenty years together, our happy place is Puerto Vallarta, Mexico which we’ve visited a dozen times. Our spring trip is planned every March to escape the winters of the Northeast in the US and 2020 was no exception. Tickets were purchased by end of 2019 and the trip was set. The fact China was already dealing with a virus as we were making those plans never came into my mind.
As the date approached, more and more changes were happening in America due to COVID-19. Travel warnings were in place for Italy. I watched carefully to see what the numbers were like in Mexico. I bought two masks before the panic set in, “just in case” we might need them on our trip. However we kept telling ourselves our trip was on as it would be better to lay in the sun than stay in our home in northern New Jersey. The week prior, I was back and forth in my mind about staying or going. Broadway shut down. The sports industry canceled events. I had to cancel events in the theater that I manage in New York. Still, we decided we would go on our trip and worst case scenario, we would get stuck there rather than in the states.
After disinfecting our entire plane seats and everything we would touch, the Saturday flight was uneventful. We arrived, and the warmth, the smell, the friendly people—everything was how we had left it and we were thrilled to be back in what we call our other home. We opted for a personal condo instead of a resort for this trip, which turned out to be a smart move. The US was already talking about social distancing and we knew we could practice that in a condo in the Zona Romantica in Puerto Vallarta. We noticed fewer tourists on the streets than usual. Perhaps others had stayed home while some of us kept our original plans.
If you’ve never been to Puerto Vallarta and only know it because the Love Boat would dock there on that 70s TV show, you are missing out on a beautiful part of the world. Old mixed with new. An amazing meal at every restaurant. Wonderful entertainment from cabaret artists to drag queens. Beaches where you sit and listen to waves while someone brings you a cocktail. This is a place I’ve never once felt unsafe as a gay man as they are very accepting of gay tourists.
We always try to find new things to do when we’re there, but this time we decided to stick to the old town area where our condo was located. Restaurants were fairly empty, so staying isolated wasn’t an issue. We canceled a cooking class we had signed up for as I didn’t feel comfortable about that. We did stick to a chocolate tour we had arranged, but no one else showed, so once again we could practice social distancing. Even going up to the pool on the roof of the condo was mostly all ours as the place was empty. After spending one day at our favorite spot on the beach, the roof became our sanctuary for the week and the beach was left to the tourists.
By Tuesday night, we got word that all bars, clubs, cabarets were shutting down. Though no cases had yet been confirmed in the state of Jalisco, they were seeing what was happening in major cities in the US, and the Mexican health department made this important decision. I read the town was only at 50% capacity in hotels. Suddenly the place felt like a ghost town after three days of being there. Tourists were rushing home. I became obsessed with streaming services of news channels from the states and watched everything going on. For the first time it hit me that I was in a foreign place during a pandemic. We thought of flying home early, but there is only one direct flight from Puerto Vallarta to New Jersey, and it happens on Saturdays. We thought it less risky to get on one plane rather than going through multiple airports.
We started telling ourselves we might end up sheltering down in Mexico. The news came in daily that the American/Mexican border was going to be closed and that Americans were told to get home immediately. We looked into other flights, but couldn’t get tickets. So our decision was made to wait it out. Rather than sitting in our cold house in New Jersey, we would soak up vitamin D on the roof under the Mexican sun. We spoke to a few other tourists, from a distance, and discussed people’s plans if they couldn’t get home. I would be lying to say I wasn’t anxious, as I was. Daily. Yet there was also a calmness as the town wasn’t as panicked as they were in the states, they were more bewildered as more and more places shut down. By Friday we were told the condo we were in was going to cut back on staffing the following week so I started to make alternative plans in case we were unable to return to New Jersey. That night the borders were closed. Friends kept texting me worried what we were going to do. I woke at 4:30 A.M. on Saturday morning to see if the plane heading to Puerto Vallarta that would turn around to take us home was actually leaving. When I finally read that it was in the air, I knew we’d be going home.
We left our oasis of old town Puerto Vallarta in a cab and headed to the airport, passing the hotel zone and Marina. There we saw two large cruise ships. I thought it odd as I had believed all ships had been stopped from traveling. When we arrived at the airport, we put on our masks nand went inside. It was a zoo. I’d never seen so many people in this small airport. Having no checked bags, we passed them all and went directly to security to get to the gate—three hours early. Right before the plane was set to take off, we were told all New York airports had been closed and they were working to see what they would be doing with us. My heart was in my throat again. Would we stay? Would we fly to another airport in the states? It wasn’t even five minutes later when uncertainly led to controlled chaos as they said the airports were opening, and we we quickly boarded the plane. We wiped down everything on the aircraft, wore our masks the entire way home, and were grateful once we landed in New Jersey. Having flown from Mexico, which wasn’t listed as one of the 14 countries on the high alert list, no one questioned us or took our temperature in customs. (I had been checking mine daily while away. Yes, I was that neurotic.) Needless to say, the lockdowns set in place in my state aided in the self-quarantining from where I write this now.
Naturally I will continue to travel. It’s one of the great loves of my life. I just don’t know when it will happen, when our world will heal and find normalcy again. But when I do, I might think twice about traveling in the midst of a global pandemic.
Postscript: While the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Sunday for Mexicans to continue to go out and live normal lives since they are in “phase 1” of the virus; the Governor of Jalisco (Puerto Vallarta is in this state), Enrique Alfaro Ramírez has taken a different response. He has announced the application of massive rapid tests to detect COVID-19 and asked the Pacific Airport Group to suspend flights from those places where a health crisis has been decreed. Also the Regional Hospital of Puerto Vallarta has created an area for the exclusive care of patients with symptoms of COVID-19 to prepare for what is to come. Puerto Vallarta is six weeks away from what starts their low season May-September when fewer tourists travel to the area due to heat, humidity and the rainy season.
Gregory Allen is an award-winning writer, filmmaker and advocate of causes from LGBTQ to autism awareness.