Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Airport feels like a ghost town during coronavirus pandemic

Few passengers checked in for JetBlue flights at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. Photo by Amanda Pérez Pintado

The sound of creaking escalators echoed through Terminal A at Newark Liberty International Airport, in New Jersey on Friday night. The usually bustling airport resembled a ghost town. Halls were barren, and stores were closed, except for a brightly lit Hudson News store. Two travelers protected their hands with latex gloves while they used a ticketing kiosk. 

A few workers walked around, seemingly unsure of what to make of the empty airport.  

“It’s eerie,” said an employee as I checked my bag for my flight home to Puerto Rico. 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a noticeable impact on air travel. The United States had imposed restrictions on European nations, and added the United Kingdom and Ireland to the ban on Saturday. Meanwhile, Jet2 planes from the United Kingdom to Spain turned around mid-air on Saturday after the airline cancelled all flights to the country because of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

Globally, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose to more than 145,000 on Saturday with more than 5,400 deaths. Puerto Rico has confirmed four cases of Covid-19 as of Saturday night, but there are at least 17 suspected cases of the disease on the island. 

As the virus spreads and more people think twice before getting on a plane, domestic and international flights have dropped. I booked my JetBlue flight the same day I flew out. The one-way ticket cost $101. Under normal conditions, a round-trip from New York City to Puerto Rico during the same period could cost more than $300. 

After checking in, I went through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint. The TSA screening took two minutes and a half. I was not asked any questions about my recent travel history nor was I checked for any symptoms. It was business as usual. 

The walk to the waiting area for my flight was silent. The hum of machines and scattered suitcase wheels followed me until I reached gate A17. 

Hundreds of travelers sat in the waiting area. Some waited for the plane to Puerto Rico, while others anticipated flights to Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, in Florida. At first, it seemed like a typical airport scene: passengers reading, eating, charging their phones and talking to loved ones. But upon closer inspection, I noticed gloves, masks and even goggles. 

Maribel Torres wore a blue face mask, but took it off after a while. 

“I wore this to protect my nose,” said Torres, 43. “But I feel suffocated with it.”

Torres lives in Pennsylvania, but was flying to Puerto Rico for a family reunion. She considered cancelling the trip because of the Covid-19 outbreak, but decided to go in the end. Torres said she will fly back home on Monday. 

“My whole family is flying to Puerto Rico,” she said in Spanish. “When you get sick, you get sick. Sometimes people exaggerate things.”

Besides carrying a face mask, Torres said she has been washing her hands more frequently to protect herself from the virus.  The World Health Organization recommends cleaning hands with alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water. 

She said she is worried about the current atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding jobs, saying employers are quick to send workers home if they show signs of illness. She also expressed concern over a shortage of supplies. 

“When you go to the supermarket, you can’t find anything,” she said. “People think the world is ending.” 

Across the United States, shoppers have emptied store shelves of food, cleansing wipes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, among other products. The demand for face masks and gloves has risen as citizens try to protect themselves from the virus. 

Yarimar Lugo, 45, and Harry Serrano, 43, came to the airport armed with cleansing wipes to sanitize their seats on the plane. Lugo said she brought masks to wear in case anyone in the plane started coughing. 

“The situation is not good,” said Serrano in Spanish as he munched on chips. “In Puerto Rico, it’s not very safe. They don’t test.”

Puerto Rico has been sending patient samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. On Friday, the CDC said that the samples sent by the government of Puerto Rico were not in adequate condition. The CDC, however, was able to deliver the results. 

When Lugo and Serrano boarded the plane, they wiped down their seats. They offered me two wipes to do the same. Wearing latex gloves, the crew walked up and down the aisle with plastic bags to throw away the passengers’ used wipes. The plane smelled of disinfectant. 

The front rows of the aircraft were empty and there were a few scattered empty seats in the back of the plane. We took off a bit before 12:30 a.m. The flight had been delayed by more than an hour.

JetBlue flight 589 landed in Carolina, Puerto Rico, at 3:50 a.m. I stepped out of the plane soon after, expecting to be greeted by a thermometer thrust in my mouth. But there was no one waiting outside. 

Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced on Thursday declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to address the coronavirus crisis. But Puerto Rico National Guard Adjutant General José Reyes said he cannot anticipate when they will begin screening travelers entering the island due to lack of equipment. 

Without being stopped, I made my way to the carousel to get my luggage. It took less than two minutes for my bag to slide my way.

I picked up the 48 pound suitcase, and strutted outside into the 70 degree humid heat. No one stopped me. I walked out of the airport and left, as if it were a normal day in paradise.




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