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Travel With COVID: In The Midwest, Casual Attitudes Lay The Tracks For Delta Surge

One day when they write about the surprise delta surge that hit the United States during the summer of 2021, historians will probably note that it wasn’t much of a surprise. All along, people — and particularly travelers — were laying the tracks for a sharp rise in cases.

I know because I was there.

In Chicago, where I spent a week after visiting New England, attitudes toward COVID 19 seemed guarded among the local population but off the rails for some visitors. And in Iowa, despite the best efforts of tourism officials, there was a sense that COVID wasn’t a problem in the wide-open spaces. But it was.

This is the sixth in a series about a 10,000-mile road trip around the United States during the rise and fall of the delta variant. 

How the delta variant changed travel

COVID amnesia in the South

What happens when travelers follow the COVID rules?

Washington, D.C., surveys the COVID damage

This is how the delta variant surprised summer travelers

The Midwest is one of my favorite places to visit, and there’s no better time to see it than during the summer. My visit to Chicago coincided with Lollapalooza, the famous music festival. I also heard that Dead & Co. were coming through town, which was a show I had wanted to see with my 14-year-old daughter — if she were still on this trip. (She left us back in Washington, D.C.) And in Iowa, there was the “Field of Dreams” baseball game and the Iowa State Fair, two iconic events that brought people together at perhaps the worst possible time.

Coronavirus farewell tour canceled in Chicago

The ACME Hotel is almost too cool for Chicago. The walls of the elevators are plastered with old records, records, and 80s tunes replace the usual elevator music. The rooms have whimsical, contemporary art — large handprints and oversized lips on the mirrors. Pull the curtains, and there’s art staring back at you: an orange mannequin on a trapeze suspended from above.

Cynthia Davis, who handles PR for the hotel, wanted to talk about the art and the signature bar at the ACME, the Berkshire Room — a place, she noted, that is “free of pretension,” and also very trendy. She’s right. The hotel itself is free of pretension. Want coffee in the morning? Someone will deliver it to your room in a thermos. Need anything else? The staff downstairs is extra attentive, and they’ll give you the lay of the land if you’re driving in from a faraway place like New England.

They don’t really want to talk about COVID, and you can’t blame them. After all, this was supposed to be the farewell tour for coronavirus. In Chicago, despite stricter masking and social distancing rules than I’d seen in the southern states, people were just starting to relax. 

My brother, an art student at Illinois State University, drove up for a few days to visit us. While we walked the crowded streets of the Windy City, he made a stunning confession: He hadn’t been vaccinated. When he told me, I instinctively took a step back.

“Why not?” I asked him. 

“I guess I just haven’t gotten around to it,” he replied.

I wanted to launch into a lecture about how we were still in a dangerous pandemic, and this delta variant was troublesome. But I stopped myself. Who wants a talking-to from big brother? I just said, “Please consider getting one,” and left it at that.

The ACME Hotel was surprisingly busy, and so was Chicago. But here, for the first time since visiting Orlando, I saw people wearing masks outdoors. In the shops, the signs flipped from “masks are optional if you’ve been vaccinated” to “masks are encouraged regardless of vaccination status.”

But mostly, there was one image of Chicago that will forever stay in my mind: It’s our daily walks along Lake Michigan in the oppressive Midwestern heat, surveying the crowded beaches. There are no masks and there’s no social distancing, and I’m thinking: “This is not going to end well.”

Surely, if the delta cases got any worse, people would start taking more precautions. But that was before I got to Iowa.

Iowa: COVID is “not a problem”

So far, during the nascent delta surge, I had seen the extremes. In Georgia and South Carolina, visitors tossed their masks. In Massachusetts and Vermont, everything was locked down tight. I wondered where Iowa would fit in. But I shouldn’t have. Just a few months before, the governor signed a bill banning mask mandates in schools. And everywhere I went, it seemed that when I had a question about COVID, the answer would end with, “And you know, our governor …” 

We started our tour of Iowa in Decorah, a small college town in the Northeastern part of the state. At dinner with tourism officials at La Rana Bistro, a local Italian restaurant, I learned that in this quiet corner of the state, COVID hadn’t really been much of a problem. Iowans have a culture of politeness and friendliness, so when they say COVID isn’t a problem, you want to believe them.

But my faith was put to the test a few days later in Des Moines when we checked out the Iowa State Fair. It’s a massive event, drawing crowds from around the state. No one was wearing a mask or social distancing — except for State Fair employees. One organizer I met up with apologized for his mask. 

“They make us wear them,” he shrugged. 

Of course, he didn’t know that the delta surge would almost match the severity of the November 2020 spike, creating a gridlock of hospitalizations across the Midwest. But looking back, you could see that the state’s relatively low vaccination rates and permissive attitudes toward social distancing would exact a toll.  

There were areas where travelers seemed to take COVID more seriously. For example, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, I found some of the strictest COVID precautions of the summer. Masks worn at all times, hand sanitizer stations at the entrance, and people keeping apart. Sean Ulmer, the museum’s art director, showed us the museum’s impressive collection of Grant Wood paintings and then took us over to Wood’s studio, located only a few blocks away. He kept six feet away from me at all times.

Not what we expected

I had hoped our tour of Iowa and Illinois would signal a return to normalcy after more than a year of pandemic. We had plans to spend a few quiet moments in the Whiterock Conservancy, the famous nature preserve near Coon Rapids. I was also interested in exploring the Devonian Fossil Gorge, with its fascinating rock formations near Iowa City. And we did see them, but not the way normal visitors do. There were extra precautions and abbreviated schedules, and it left me wanting to come back again.

While we were in Des Moines, they held the “Field of Dreams” game. The Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Yankees, 9-8. I asked my 19-year-old son if he’d ever seen the movie. He hadn’t. We watched the classic in our room at the Renaissance hotel that night. It was a bonding experience, and something I’ll always be grateful to Iowa for.

Yes, the cavalier attitude of many visitors to the Midwest would only fuel the delta surge. But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have rescheduled during a safer time. Sure, the danger interfered with our travel plans, but it also made the experience much more interesting. Adversity brings out the best in people — but sometimes, the worst.

We got to see all of that.

By now, we’d also come to terms with the fact that there was nothing we could do to change anyone’s attitude toward COVID. Some would ignore it, some would take it a little too seriously. All I could do was take notes and photos.

We headed north toward Minnesota even as the delta surge entered its most dangerous phase.

Next: Minnesota and a long trek across North Dakota, Montana and Idaho.

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