Dealing with a mess of first-world problems as COVID-19 killed spring break? You're not alone trying to decipher the mixed messages

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      So here’s a funny thing about when the world starts to look like a real-life mashup of 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, and Contagion featuring (spoiler alert!!!) the world’s briefest cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow: getting reliable information can be hard, if not almost impossible.

      Is it better to insist that all citizens lock themselves away as per measures taken by China as COVID-19 started to spread in that country, or does the UK have the right idea by suggesting everyone would  be better off if 60 percent of the county was infected, thus building up herd immunity?

      Is one’s smartest plan of action to rent a U-Haul van and fill it with hand sanitizer, Pringles, and 10-ply toilet paper at Costco, thereby ensuring you won’t have to leave the house for the next five months. Or are things being overblown, with many arguing that the majority of those at risk tend to be elderly with serious underlying health conditions? In Canada no less than Sophie Trudeau has COVID-19, and Justin Trudeau’s last update on her status earlier today was that the kids are fine and the wife has a bit of a headache.

      Will standing on your front porch and singing “Abbracciame” at the top of your possibly COVID-19-compromised lungs make you feel better about the end of times--even if you have zero idea what the words means? Or would it make more sense to panic-strickenly scream along en-masse to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”?

      One thing is for certain as the world has screamed to a COVID-19 halt over the past 72 hours or so: if you were among the hundreds of thousands who’d previously made plans to travel this spring break, everything is a mess. And sorting things out isn’t easy.

      Here’s my story, which no doubt like yours, continues to unfold with just as many questions as answers.

      Last fall, after months of belt-tightening with Top Ramen, Kraft Dinner, and sweet-and-sour Purina Cat Chow, we scraped together enough for a two-and-a-half week spring break vacation, starting in Iceland for three days, and then London and the English countryside for the remainder.

      Travelling with me and my long-suffering wife would be our two kids and my 86-year-old father-in-law, who skis six days a week and is probably healthier than I am.

      Deciding whether to go as COVID-19 increasingly dominated the first 23 minutes of the CTV National News each night became a family war, each side listing pros and cons (ie. the chance to swim in Iceland’s no doubt almost-empty Blue Lagoon vs. the threat of pandemic death). And then the debate was ended once and for all on Friday, when government officials at all levels told everyone to avoid all travel; those already abroad were advised to get back home the next day. Where they promptly ended up in massive cattle-pen lines at places like Toronto Pearson International Airport, with nary a flat of Danielle Baskin respiratory masks or industrial-size vat of SoClean 2 CPAP Santizer to be seen, and no screening for the virus done.

      The deal breaker? That was the suggestion that anyone who did travel would be strongly encouraged (ie. everything but forced) to spend 14 days at home in isolation. Great if you’ve got a fully stocked liquor cabinet and an Xbox loaded with a freshly downloaded Red Dead Redemption II. Hell if you’re expected to be in lockdown with a family you normally do your best to avoid with frequent visits to the liquor cabinet in between blowing the living shit out of the Pinkertons, Grays, and Braithwaites in the old American West.

      So what happens when you cancel? That depends who you booked things with.

      Because renting whole apartments and/or houses gives the option of saving money on breakfast, lunches, and dinners, we’ve long gone that route using services like Airbnb and VRBO.

      First up was cancelling accommodations. Airbnb stepped up immediately, fully refunding every booking.

      VRBO on the other hand left one wondering if the service is tone deaf to what’s going in the world. An email was sent to the company letting it know that we were unable to get to the U.K. where we had a five-night booking in London.

      The initial response was VRBO suggesting we contact the owner of the property for our money back. This was followed by a message from the owner’s property management company that included the following: “These are difficult times for guests and hosts alike. Unfortunately, as a lot of our property owners rely on income to cover the cost of their properties, we are adhering to the cancellation policy of booking”.

      Never mind that said owner is no doubt covering the month’s mortgage with three of our five nights.

      In a classic bit of buck-passing, the property management company then suggested we go after VRBO for the money.

      Which might explain why, if you punch in VRBO on Twitter, you’ll find all sorts of enraged folks wondering why they didn’t use Airbnb, and hashtagging their posts with #classactionsuit.

      The chaos hasn’t stopped there—try getting your money back from Expedia for a hotel in Iceland, said hotel also declining to step up.

      The problem when everything happens at once is that there’s no one to man the phone lines. In our case, the plane tickets were booked through MasterCard on Icelandair with a departure date of Monday.   

      It took 36 hours to get hold of Icelandair, including several stints of waiting three straight hours on hold. The official said that there were two choices: either cancel the flight and lose the whole fare, or rebook within six months and pay whatever differences there might be in the fare.

      Icelandair’s beleaguered phone clerk said the company would only be refunding fares to countries that have full travel bans (Denmark and the U.S., for example), but the Canadian government’s vaguer red alert against “nonessential travel” doesn’t cut it.

      And here’s the problem with the way that all of this has unfolded from a government standpoint. For whatever head-scratching reason, the officials waited until just hours before the start of spring break to ramp up its warnings.

      Those warnings remain designed to instil maximum dread and panic, without setting out iron-clad parameters.

      The government is “recommending that travellers avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada”. If you insist on getting on the plane, Health Canada’s website says to “self-isolate for 14 days after your return”. Except what it does make clear is that’s a suggestion, not an inflexible directive. The government also sent out a warning on Saturday that anyone overseas should get back home on a flight immediately because there might soon be no planes in the air.

      Again, all these options are being framed as essential to stop people from dying from COVID-19. Except Icelandair missed all those memos.

      The choice we got was either get on the plane, book a nonrefundable ticket within six months (when no one knows if it will be safe to travel) or eat the tickets.

      The clerk then suggested we go on the Icelandair website to deal with the booking, before eventually admitting that there was no way to do this online as the fares were in economy. The final word: the only option is to get on the phone on the day of the flight, hope against hope the airline cancels the flight, or else eat the fare.

      There are pros and cons to the way this has been handled in Canada: on the one hand, it’s good that we don’t live in a country where dictators like Trump order inflexible bans; on the other, the wishy-washiness of the “recommendations” here mean that Canadian families are being told to get on the plane or watch thousands of dollars sprout wings and fly to the heavens.

      We’re not alone. Families we know have in the past 24 hours cancelled flights to Peru, Africa, Bahamas, and Mexico, and no--those families aren’t rich, but instead saved up by eating Spork “meat”-loaf for the past year.

      The point of all the above, which admittedly can come across like first-world problems in the face of a global pandemic where the entire globe is freaking the fuck out? That would be to let you know that, if you’re currently sitting at home wondering why your spring break plans have blown up in spectacular fashion, with no clue how to move forward, it’s good to know you’re not alone.

      You might also find it helpful to know that some high-profile businesses are choosing to do the right thing, and others have let you know that you’re in for a fight.

      And that figuring out how things are going to shake down for you is a long process where the answers don’t exactly come fast and furious.

      When VRBO finally responded to us after 36 hours of frantic messaging, the line was this: “We see that the owner is sticking to the no refund policy, but is allowing a future stay.”

      The only problem with that being that, at the moment, the future isn’t exactly clear given that the world currently looks like the scariest parts of 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, and Contagion, which I still can’t believe killed off Gwyneth Paltrow in the first 10 minutes.