Travel, Tests & Tears: Getting Home from New York for Christmas
Callum Ashley covers his journey back from the Big Apple but things arent quite as straightforward as they might appear…
Four days before Christmas, I was standing in JFK airport looking like a fool, dressed in two jumpers with my jacket tied around my waist. Stuffed with New York-themed Christmas presents, the zips of my backpack felt like they’d burst with the addition of anything else. Yet, watching the British Airways check-in staff squabble over the validity of my negative test result, I wasn’t sure whether I could put those presents beneath my tree or if I’d have to post them.
watching the British Airways check-in staff squabble over the validity of my negative test result, I wasn’t sure whether I could put those presents beneath my tree or if I’d have to post them
In the week I was flying home, over seven million people flew into the USA, and just as many were leaving. Yet, despite these figures, this is less than half of the pre-pandemic levels. These lowly numbers forced airlines to lay off tens of thousands of employees as rising losses across the industry soared to eye-watering amounts. But where airlines lost money, covid testing centres would make millions more. Lucky for me, I had my college’s mandatory health insurance, but where it saved me money, it didn’t save me stress.
The UK’s requirements to enter the country hit like a series of blizzards throughout the early winter. November came bearing the compulsory day two home test. Isolation would be required for two days as the test would be processed. If negative, great; if positive, you know the story… Soon after that, a pre-departure test had to be completed within 48 hours before travel was added. As I sat in my college’s library watching the UK entry requirements toughen up alongside the case numbers rising in New York state, I had a sickly feeling when considering my return. My Dad’s words echoed in the back of my head: “You couldn’t have possibly chosen a worse year to study abroad”.
The test I booked was a NAAT (I’m still not sure what that means). It was free on my insurance, only took fifteen minutes to return, and apparently, the UK accepted it. But on the day of the test, I was nervous. It felt like I had something at the back of my throat and my nose had a leek. Whilst I had blamed the cold because of my usual poor choice of clothing for the New York winter climate, an indirect symptom of the pandemic was playing on my mind – what if it was covid? Regretting my choices, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t smart to have gone Ice skating and then to a tight Broadway restaurant in Times Square only three days before –the perfect place of infection and perfect incubation period. It would be depressing to stay on an empty campus, with a cafeteria lunch served through my door on Christmas day, so a terrible question flashed into my head -could I fake a test result?
The covid centre I came to was small; no more than two meters squared. Next door was an ammunition shop, and on the other side was a small shopping outlet. Without asking for ID, a masked individual shoved a swab in my nose. “This is a test that will let me get on my flight, right?” I muffled. “I think so. Did you check our website?” I thought I did. Five seconds later that was it. “Be around in fifteen minutes. We’ll call you when your result is ready.” I spent that fifteen minutes walking up and down the side of a highway listening to a Spotify playlist, which when finished, Hey There Delilah began to play forebodingly. I quickly skipped it. By then ten minutes had gone and no text. Soon fifteen minutes had gone. Nothing. At thirty minutes, I thought I’d knock on the door, but as I was crossing the street my phone finally vibrated. A text. “Your results are ready”.
walking up and down the side of a highway listening to a Spotify playlist, which when finished, Hey There Delilah began to play forebodingly…
Another masked individual handed me my results. The one needed for boarding my flight. On the thin sheet of A4 with a few lines of information, I read: TEST RESULT: NAAT: NEGATIVE. I was very happy with that. However, I was less so with the document and less still when I tried to upload it for an online check-in and British Airways didn’t accept it! It would have to be an in-person check-in. Unless a college site test would suffice. But that didn’t either, as the documentation was far worse. Although the paper was marginally thicker with a glossy finish, all that was written was “CALLUM ASHLEY TESTED NEGATIVE FOR COVID-19 12/20/2021″, followed by the testers signature.
On the long trip to JFK airport from Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (one train, three subways, one air train, and a dense three hundred person queue for airport check-ins), Covid was again playing on my mind. It wasn’t the fact that one of the hundreds of people I would come into contact with that day could give me the virus, but because someone without any knowledge of covid testing sites or tests could reject my negative result.
For twenty agonising minutes, I waited as three employees queried my documents.
For twenty agonising minutes, I waited as three employees queried my documents. For clarification, I passed them my second test, bare of details, but they quickly handed, heads shaking, mouths muttering. I looked to the departure board. The boarding process would begin soon…
The employees dispersed and one returned my test results to me. She proceeded to plug some details into her computer. “Sorry about this. You can move on to boarding”. The relief was immense.
After a two-and-a-half-hour delay, because the ventilation system had broken halfway through boarding the first plane, I was sleepily watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion on the second aircraft. I soon fell asleep, ignorant of the more difficult testing regulations that the US would soon put in place for my return, three weeks later. At least I could put my Christmas presents underneath the tree.
Editor: Ryan Gerrett