Emergency exit: Flying home from California in the midst of Covid-19

They were the words I didn’t want to hear but I knew would come eventually: “Foreign Secretary advises all British travellers to return to the UK now.” Thus ended a three-month sabbatical in Palo Alto, California, which had been months in the making for me and my husband, Seb. I had arrived 15 days earlier, ready to stuff every spare moment possible with exploring the Golden State. Seb had been there a month before I joined, in order to start a medical research fellowship into childhood brain tumours at Stanford University.

The news had got worse since I had arrived, with Trump banning flights from Europe followed by the Bay Area (and then the rest of California) putting a ‘shelter in place’ order from 16 March. Silicon Valley had closed its tech offices and stopped international travel even before that. But we agreed we would try to stay until the end as planned, even if plans were now very different. People asked if we would be coming home early. “Of course not,” I’d say, incredulous. Why would I come home when I could self-isolate in leafy American suburbia, with a car and northern California’s countryside on our doorstep, instead of London, where friends told me tales of apocalyptic supermarkets? Why would I come back to Europe, now the epicentre of the pandemic?

But neither of us could now ignore the impending feeling of doom and the prospect of financial uncertainty if we got stuck in the US. United, with whom our flights back were booked, had announced a reduction of 95 per cent of flights in April, including the San Francisco to London route, and, even though our flight back wasn’t currently cancelled, we were worried this could extend well into May (despite Trump’s latest assertions), when we were due back. Ignoring FCO advice could also render our health insurance invalid.

San Francisco airport

An empty San Francisco airport this week

We went back and forth for an hour. Stay or go, stay or go? “But we just did a food shop yesterday,” I protested. We asked friends and family, who understood the difficult choice. “But would it REALLY be so bad if we got stuck here?” being the question I came back to most, even as we were driving to the airport to enquire about our options. We decided it would be better than phoning – I had tried to cancel a domestic flight the week before, was faced with an hours-long wait and ultimately gave up. I watched Boris Johnson’s announcement about the three-week UK lock-down from the car. 

“Never seen an airport so quiet,” said the bemused gentleman in the lift from the garage to the terminal. It was eerily so. United changed our flights swiftly, at no extra cost (and, notably, despite my booking through Lufthansa, with which United codeshares). Although there was space on the flight leaving that afternoon, we opted for the following day. I felt a weird sense of relief and intense disappointment, hoping that the desk assistant would suddenly convince us it was all going to be OK and that we should stay. “Be safe,” he said, as we left. 

And so began the soul-destroying task of swiftly packing up the apartment. Every time I threw another item into the suitcase it was a reminder of what could have been. There were tears. The bikinis meant to come with me to Hawaii. The hiking boots bought for Yosemite (which closed last week owing to being overrun with visitors looking for open space). A copy of The Grapes of Wrath that I started as soon as I arrived, as we set off on a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, and now can’t bear to finish. 

We dropped off a borrowed bike back to a colleague and took back a computer screen to Stanford (now entirely shuttered). We’d been there the week before walking around its Rodin sculpture garden thinking there could be worse places in the world to be on lockdown. Afterwards, we drank the fridge dry – I had been making my way through our local supermarket’s Chardonnay section, the next best thing after a trip to both Napa and Sonoma had also been cancelled. 

Big Sur

Jade in Big Sur, just before the ‘shelter in place’ order began

The next morning, we loaded up our six-person Jeep (booked so we could ferry visiting friends around), dropped off all the leftover food to another colleague, and set off for the airport. The car rental garage had more cars than spaces – row upon row of four-by-fours and Mustangs, a reminder of all the cancelled road trips. I counted one person on the Airtrain into the terminal. 

The desks were busier than the previous day: trolleys were stacked high with luggage; people were laden with backpacks. The sense was very much of travellers taking one-way trips: no excited newlyweds, no school trips; everyone seemed anxious. The shop assistant at the newsagent coughed as I paid for some magazines. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m not ill.” 

The flight was almost full – a stark contrast to my outbound flight. The upbeat pilot announced some Covid-19-related etiquette (cough into a tissue; sneeze into your elbow etc), as well as the fact that this was now the last United flight to London out of San Francisco. 

San Francisco airpot

All packed up and ready to fly

After practising social distancing for 10 days it felt odd to be sat so close to strangers. My neighbour was headed back to her native Germany to work remotely as her San Francisco-based office had closed. I overheard other passengers’ conversations: at least two people had cut lengthy trips abroad short, including someone who was getting home from Auckland. Facemasks ranged from the high-tech to the makeshift. 

Heathrow Terminal 2 was similarly quiet, with what looked like a few parents greeting children back from suspended gap years. We picked up our rental car and drove back to my father-in-law’s house in Birmingham, feeling fairly blue, where we will stay while our friends move out of our flat in London.

All the disappointment has been cast into a new and more sobering light. The same evening we got back, Seb received an email calling all doctors currently on research to consider pausing their studies to return to frontline hospital duties, signalling our abrupt return not only home, but to a new, unsettling reality.