Voices From Travel’s Frontlines: ‘We Walk in Fear, We Work in Fear’
Voices From Travel’s Frontlines: ‘We Walk in Fear, We Work in Fear’
Over the past six weeks, countries across the globe have gradually begun to reopen to travelers, both domestic and foreign. But the travel world, still mired in an unyielding pandemic, is drastically altered. This is especially so for workers in the tourism industry.
Their workplaces are now filled with restrictions and health measures, uncertainty and new procedures. With new coronavirus cases rising in many regions, those just returning to work wonder, yet again, how long they will be employed and if they are safe.
We spoke with six travel workers, from Alaska to the Maldives, on returning to the job. They shared their stories in English and Spanish. Like the workers we interviewed when international borders first closed, they are embarking on a new journey, one of caution and reserve.
Among some of them is relief and a renewed sense of hope, while others seek to answer this question: With all the new obstacles, how can visitors feel welcome again?
The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
The executive chef at LUX* North Male Atoll Resort & Villas
We’re one of the few resorts in the Maldives that never officially closed. We tried to get other guests from other islands who were displaced. Toward the end, we only had one family staying with us, a Russian family who couldn’t get home.
We cooked for the three guests we had — two plus one small child. In the end, they Googled some Russian recipes.
I think it will be a slow transition. In the last few days we’ve had more guest bookings, we’re at right about 30 percent capacity for next week. We weren’t even expecting that, so that’s a good sign. When people see other people traveling that’s when we’ll see it really pick up.
The owner of the resort lives on the island and from the get-go he made sure that nobody was worried about the future: Whatever was going to come, we would get through it. Nobody lost their job.
Now, all team members wear masks. The service team wears gloves. We have daily temperature checks, sanitizer in all the restaurants, a six-foot distance between the tables.
Normally you keep the table set as an inviting feel, but now the table has to stay bare, so there’s a bit to get used to visually. A lot of the little luxury touches associated with a five-star hotel, we’re having to tweak.
Our kitchens are well-air conditioned. The New York City basement kitchen doesn’t exist here. The hotel has a custom-made cloth mask, so that may be better than the hot disposable masks. We’ll figure it out soon.
U.S. Virgin Islands
A bartender at Skinny Legs Bar and Grill on St. John
I didn’t expect it to be this busy. I’d say we’re doing like 50 to 60 percent. We allow 50 people in a restaurant at a time. And we’ve had maximum capacity a couple of times, with people outside, waiting to get in.
I think tourists are just happy to be here. The employees are more on edge. There are people — mostly tourists — who won’t wear their masks and follow the rules. I say, “Go get your masks,” and they get all huffy and leave. We’re just trying to make a buck, and if masks will keep us from blowing up, we’d like to make our money while we’re open.
When we shut down, we were blessed to have only 11 cases across all three islands. We’ve seen spikes in California, spikes in Florida — and people are coming here from those states. Our numbers are rising, and it doesn’t make sense: We had the benefit of being away from the mainland.
Thirty to 40 percent of our population is elderly and as an island with a majority Black population, we have to consider that this virus is affecting us disproportionally. I feel like opening back up is incredibly detrimental to the community, but you know: tourism.
It’s the way we’ve become so dependent on tourism, people thinking this is the ‘American Paradise,’ and the entitlement of tourists. So now people are starting to say, ‘We’ve got to fix that.’
This could wake people up. Our jobs are in this industry that, at the same time, is killing us.
Though the U.S.V.I. and Skinny Legs reopened to tourists in June, the restaurant is now closed for several weeks after Ms. Jones and other employees learned that they had been exposed to the coronavirus.
A room attendant at the luxury hotel Fontainebleau Miami Beach for 34 years
I didn’t find out we were closing through the company. The news came from my co-workers. It felt like I wasn’t important — that they wouldn’t call and talk to us about it.
And then the famous card saying we’d been laid off arrived in the mail — 15 days after the hotel closed. They said they’d call us when they reopened and that was it.
I was surprised to hear that they were reopening and the way I found out about it was through the union reaching out to me. Right now there’s a super-low occupancy level, about 11 percent.
Everything has changed. We walk in fear, we work in fear, we don’t have the same compassion with each other because it’s just scary to be in there. It doesn’t seem like a hotel, it seems like a hospital.
You don’t know who has the virus and who doesn’t. We are front line workers who every day interact with guests — who may or may not have their masks on — and that’s something that’s very scary, having that constant contact with so many people.
Me going back to work on June 1 was something that I was forced to do. The hotel is not taking into consideration that we could get sick. I’m a person who suffers from respiratory problems. There are already co-workers who have caught Covid-19 after returning to work.
During the closure of the hotel, the owners of the Fontainebleau decided to stop paying for worker health insurance. Almost 1,000 staffers, including Ms. Menendez, lost their insurance earlier this month as a result.
A flight attendant for the Italian airline Alitalia
I haven’t been at work since March, when things got bad with the coronavirus. I’m on standby on Friday for my first flight since then. I don’t know where I’ll be going or if I’ll be going, but I’ll definitely be back on a flight to Budapest next week. I’m so nervous and excited.
I’ve been a flight attendant since I was 20. I am 49 now. I’ve been with Alitalia since 1995 and have never experienced something like this. During lockdown I was a little worried I wouldn’t go back to work this year, but instead, I focused on my family and cooking good food. I’m lucky I have my salary, but it’s a base. The more I work, the more I earn, and I wasn’t working for four months.
I live in Rome with my husband and two teenage daughters, so you see why I am eager to go back to work. I’m joking. I miss the people I work with and I miss the people I meet when I travel. I’m tired of cooking everyday. My skin is so nice now from all this rest and being behind a mask, so I’m really ready to start again. I’m not worried about people not following the rules. They don’t have a choice but to follow the rules. They have to wear masks. I’ll have to wear the mask for 12 hours.
I’ve been talking to my colleagues and they, like me, were enjoying all the family time at the beginning, and having a moment to relax, but now want to start working again. There are a lot of sleepless nights in this job and we didn’t miss them at the start of lockdown, but now we do. It’s a hard job being a flight attendant, but it’s like a drug.
A front desk manager and entertainer at Bay Gardens Resorts, a collection of family-owned hotels
How do I feel about going back to work? Thrilled, ecstatic, so happy to know I’m going to welcome guests back, but also to know I get to see my co-workers again. We are all excited to get back. It feels good to know that we are reopening, that the island is open although people are not coming now. But when they do, it’s going to be like, “Oh my gosh. Welcome back!”
In March, things were a bit slow then everyone had to be sent home — the guests and the staff. It was sad and shocking at once. I’ve been in the tourism industry for eight years and I have never experienced a total shutdown. It hit everybody hard.
We’ve had to learn new protocols. Our managers were working hard on training and sending us all the information we’d need to eventually come back to work and be safe. We had lots of emails and Zoom calls. We did some training on washing hands — imagine training on how to wash your hands — how to handle food, how to handle takeaway orders, housekeeping training, how to handle rooms and so on.
I was thinking about how I’m a big hugger. Normally, when I see my returning guests pop up in the lobby, I run to them with open arms. I need to come up with a way to make them feel welcome again. I know we can’t touch and there are no more handshakes. The guests can’t see our smile, but we have to learn to smile with our eyes, and let them see that we still have effective communication with them. They’ll know we are smiling under our masks.
A reservations manager for King of the River Fishing, a tour company in Kenai
I’m the one who picks up the phones and helps people plan their fishing trips with us. I usually spend the winter doing that, and the summer making sure everything is ready to go.
We have a small team of three. Me, my boss, Dean, who has been leading these trips for more than 30 years, and Jason, another guide. Things got really quiet in March, which in other years is when the phones are typically ringing the most, with people from all over the world wanting to come here and go on fishing trips. Some people want to go deep-sea fishing, others want more remote trips that involve planes.
The height of the pandemic was filled with uncertainty and questioning about whether things would reopen and if travel would return this summer. We typically start fishing in mid-May, and Alaska reopened fully on Memorial Day, so that eased some of our worries.
Alaska had a 14-day quarantine that really prevented people from coming. That was a good thing, and in the last month things started picking up again. When the mandatory quarantine period stopped, mandatory Covid testing at the airport started. To come here now you have to present a negative test at the airport or get a test here. We are not checking any of that stuff. We trust that the people who are coming here are following the rules and being honest. I’ve been surprised by how many people are willing to take a Covid test just so they can come fishing.
One of the biggest changes this year is that everything is happening at the last minute. Instead of calling in the winter to book for the summer, people are calling now and coming in a few weeks. That’s made my job a bit crazy, but we are still at 25 percent capacity. We’re excited to be back at work and welcoming people back.