Cozumel during COVID
We did it; we went diving. For those that want just the highlights, here you go:
Have I lost you yet? No? Then here’s the extended version:
As happens just about every week since the COVID crisis hit, we spent our morning scouring our travel sites for updates on island closures and openings, infection rates and the general state of the world. As travel agents, we have a vested interest in staying up to date on all things dive travel related. But we also have a moral obligation to balance that with client safety and acceptable risk.
Through the beginning of the summer, some countries slowly started opening borders. Hotels were soon to follow, and tourism operators started reaching out about the opportunities in their respective locations. Checking in on friends and dive colleagues gave us a “boots on the ground” perspective, with up to the minute reports of the true state of affairs throughout our diving community. Many are struggling to stay in business, with country restrictions resulting in their fate being completely out of their control.
While many borders continued to stay closed, some of our fellow dive shops started exploring stateside options. Sitting in the middle of the country, driving to dive is not a very viable option, so our dive trip would require air travel regardless. Local infection rates plus availability of hotel and food options all went into our equation. Based upon our research, we decided it was time to jump back into the international diving scene and give Cozumel a whirl. For Colorado, Cozumel is about as close to “local” as we can get! (Colorado sends the second most divers to Cozumel, trailing only Texas).
As divers, we have come to expect a certain amount of “acceptable risk”. Many will tell us we are crazy for going down into that dark and scary abyss, most surely to be eaten by sharks or dragged down to Davy Jones Locker. But just looking at risk as a percentage, the most dangerous part of our trip was driving to the airport. I know it’s a lot scarier to think about Jaws, but the numbers just don’t add up. So in evaluating whether we should go or not, we looked at the science, evaluated the infection rates in both our state and where we were going, and determined driving to work that week instead of going diving was ultimately a riskier endeavor (there are about 6 million car accidents a year in the US alone)!
We also considered our hosts; was it safe enough to travel to another location knowing we could be spreading the disease to others. We’ve been fortunate to make friends all over the world, and nothing would sadden me more than if we made them, or their loved ones, ill. But on the flipside, they can’t pay their rent, struggle to buy food, and are nearing losing their businesses which they have spent their entire working lives trying to build. Our decision was easy; as long as we weren’t sick, we’d go, spend our money in their businesses, all while trying to protect them by wearing masks when we couldn’t social distance, maintaining our space, and limiting our usual hugs as we said hello and goodbye.
As we prepared for our departure, we modified our thinking in how we would travel. Our original plan was to pack just one bag with dive gear, with two rolling carryon bags for our clothes. We realized this would necessitate boarding early to guarantee overhead space, resulting in sitting on the plane while the remaining passengers loaded. We quickly changed strategies, accepting the cost of an additional bag to check. This allowed us to stay away from the gate during initial loading, walking up near the end to board last, minimizing our contact with the other passengers.
Once onboard, we, like most everyone, sanitized our own seats, tray tables and seatbelts. Everyone aboard wore a mask, with both flight attendants and the pilots making announcements that confirmed in no uncertain terms what would be expected of us as the traveling public. Considering the air in the plane is recirculated about every 3 minutes, and knowing the statistics of COVID cases among flight crews, I felt much safer aboard that 737 than I do at our local grocery store.
Touching down in Cozumel, I immediately felt better once I breathed in that salt air and enjoyed some humidity. The oddest part was we were the only jet on the tarmac. No lines to get through customs, no waiting for other bags to be unloaded. We were in and out in record time, boarded aboard a shuttle bound for our hotel.
Upon arriving, we were greeted with a hearty “Hola, Amigos”, and hand sanitizer. Cleaning our shoe soles, spraying our bags with disinfectant, health screening questionnaire and temperature check concluded our initial welcome before we were allowed to check in and get settled. Ten minutes later my toes were in the sand and I was taking in my first dose of Vitamin Sea!
Time spent at the resort was much like normal, with the exception of every member of staff wearing at minimum a mask, and some with faceshields and gloves. The biggest difference at meals was breakfast, where the buffet line was replaced with a “lunch lady”, loading your plate as you pointed at what you wanted, eliminating guests touching ladles and tongs. Lunch and dinner were served a la carte to your table. All meals were first started with your obligatory hand sanitizer, with entry into the restaurants being denied until you complied. Even drinks at the bar were only handed over after they offered, and you happily accepted, sanitizer. A closer inspection of the sanitizer brand revealed Purell, the same exact version I was using at home.
Although guests were not obligated to wear masks, some chose to throughout the resort. As most activities at the resort with the exception of lunch and dinner were outside with plenty of space to social distance, the need for masks seemed minimal. Resort capacity was limited to 50%, with far less actually occupying the resort during our stay. Space was ample, with plenty of chairs at both the pool and beach begging to be lounged in, which I may have obliged once or twice.
One of our biggest questions revolved around the actual dive experience, from boarding to splashing. Masks were required as we headed down the dock once our boat arrived, with our crew first welcoming us with hand sanitizer and a quick medical screening. Upon passing our gear over, we were aboard. The typical hand to assist was not offered, but crew were stationed to immediately help if we lost our balance while boarding. Tanks were spaced on board, with the boat limited to 50% capacity, resulting in a tank separating every diver. Although it’s nearly impossible to maintain 6’ of distance on a dive boat, when boats were loaded with strangers, masks were obligatory.
The actual diving experience was no different. We geared up upon arriving at the dive site, listened to our briefing and waddled to the back of the boat to splash. Once in the water, it was the perfect escape. For 60 minutes, concerns about COVID, our business, the economy and the health of our friends and family disappeared as we floated along the reef. We cleared our heads of the noise of everyday life, focusing solely on our bubbles as they escaped against our cheeks. We were overjoyed in getting to see giant Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtles in the sand, Blacktip Reef and Nurse sharks, plus all the usuals we have come to expect on a Cozumel dive. The reef looked the same, meaning it didn’t experience a miraculous recovery after only 3 months of inactivity, but still offered the same beauty we saw on our trip to Cozumel last year. It was cathartic to be underwater, truly the medicine we needed to help us through these crazy times.
No trip to Cozumel would be complete without a visit downtown and dinner at our favorite spot, El Moro. But it truly was a tale of two emotions. Seeing the square completely devoid of tourists, with shopkeepers practically begging you to visit, was both surreal and depressing. Our typical visit downtown usually comes after the hoards from the cruise ships have departed, when the tils are full and the smiles plentiful. Although I’m not personally a cruise shipper, their value was clearly stated while walking around the square, a hint of desperation among the locals as the rare tourist wandered by their shop.
Making our way to El Moro quickly brightened our evening as we were welcomed in like family, with Ray’s famous smile difficult to contain by the confines of his mask. Our dinner was described as pure joy as we were spoiled by the Chacon family with wonderful food, drinks, and even some magic tricks by Ray. Sitting there enjoying our Mayan coffee post dinner, I quickly confirmed why we came; COVID has ravaged families that have been sickened or killed by this deadly disease, but it has also caused such irreparable harm to those that haven’t experienced the disease first hand. The inability to make enough money to support your family out of no fault of your own can break a spirit just like any disease. Knowing we were contributing to their bottom line, to the jobs of the divemasters, boat captains, maids, waiters and pool boys, all while balancing safety and our own enjoyment, made the trip more valuable than any we have taken in the past.
As we reversed course and headed back home, we followed all the same protocols. Empty airports were common, though our flights were nearly full on our return trip. We monitored our symptoms for any change in health upon our return just to be sure, with daily temperature checks and a review of our store health screening questionnaire, and continue to be healthy.
We often get asked if we would go back, or if we are booking others to travel right now, and the answer is yes, with an understanding that we all have to be responsible travelers. Wear your mask, wash your hands, monitor your symptoms, don’t travel if you are not feeling well, respect the locals that are welcoming you to their country by following their protocols and safety standards. Basically, with the exception of the mask, do all the things we should be doing regardless of whether COVID is a global threat or not! If you are in a high risk category, or are not comfortable with the idea of going to dinner at a restaurant, let alone get on a plane, then now may not be the time to travel for you. But for many of us, the ability to change our latitude while supporting those that are suffering with the lack of tourists is worth the acceptable risk.