Dispatches on a Pandemic: An American in Europe
In pre-pandemic life I bounced between the US (Philadelphia) and Europe (Budapest). Pandemic travel restrictions have marooned me in Europe since Christmas 2019 and, as things have turned out, it’s not the worst fate. After a rocky start the pandemic is being managed well in Europe and a semi-normal summer holiday season is on. I recently took a trip and made some notes.
My plan was 2-weeks in southern France (near Montpelier) via a roundtrip drive from Budapest (even in Europe planes and trains are difficult right now). First decision; go north or south of the Alps? I chose north because I hope one day to meet my grandchildren — looking at you, Italian drivers. My route: Budapest-Vienna-Munich-Zurich-Dijon-Lyon-Montpelier; just shy of 2,000 km one-way (about 1,200 miles). Transiting five countries from Eastern, Central and Western Europe: Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. Four are in the EU; Switzerland is, well, Switzerland. The EU is comprised of 27 nations that have agreed to cede some elements of sovereign control to EU governing bodies. The EU is essentially the federal government of Europe. EU members must comply with both national and EU rules. In the EU the Schengen zone is a contiguous, 26-country (EU+) visa-free travel zone. In the Schengen zone crossing an international border is just like being in the US; there is no border station or checks…just a sign saying, “Welcome to (insert country here)”. All five nations I crossed on this trip are in the Schengen zone (yes, even the non-EU Swiss).
Across all five countries I encountered a notable degree of cooperation and public discipline regarding EU and national-recommended measures to reduce COVID infections. In public bathrooms every other stall, urinal or sink is taped off to enforce social distancing recommendations of 1.5 meters (about 6 feet). Shops use tape on the floor to indicate traffic flow and must designate a single entry, single exit. This is designed to prevent people mixing and passing face-to-face, reducing the chances of transmission. At checkout, tape marks on the floor show the desired separation and customers must queue at the indicated positions. All check-out stands have plexiglass shielding and touchless (NFC) transactions are the norm. Some stores go further. I went to a large European sporting goods chain (think Dick’s Sporting Goods of Europe); customers queue in a single (appropriately-space) line. An employee at the head of the line directs you to the next open register. At the register is a bin where you place your purchases, then back away. The cashier steps forward, scans your items, returns them to the bin and then also backs away. Your turn to step forward and pay for your purchases, bag them yourself and leave. Works perfectly and nearly eliminates contact between customer and staff. For a multi-night stay at hotels, in the room they provide a plastic bag to place your used linen (towels and bedding). Leave this outside your room in the morning and it will be replaced with fresh linen left at your door. Normal room service is not provided right now. Regarding dining; while the good weather is here cities have made every effort to create spaces for restaurants and pubs to serve outdoors, including pedestrianizing large sections of city centers.
I observed excellent indoor mask discipline everywhere except Austria. Which tells you all you need to know about Austrians — essentially Germans with a toothache. (I’m gonna get mail about this…). Banks have increased the threshold for a PIN-free transaction. Now most transactions below €50 require no PIN to reduce the need to touch things. These measures have been helped by a concerted multi-media effort to inform the public. Television, radio and online platforms like FB, TWTR, IG and others are running public service spots explaining the measure to the public, billboards and other signage too. When people arrive at shops or pubs they are not confused by the markings or procedures. Public messaging works.
These are my observations of how a cross-section of European countries are dealing with the pandemic. Europe could certainly suffer a new wave of infections, but I find the way Europeans are dealing with the pandemic impressive. Europeans love their freedoms no less than Americans. But no one here seems to view masks and other public health measures as an undue infringement of their rights. Quite the opposite really. Their compliance allows them the freedom to enjoy a relatively normal summer. You might ask what is the reaction of my European friends to the US response to the pandemic? I would characterize it as confusion tinged with sadness. They can’t understand why Americans are behaving as they are. And, they are realizing they have lost a friend they could once rely on, but no longer.
NB: Over the period of my holiday (roughly the first 2 weeks of August) the EU (27 countries with a population of 440m) reported approximately 165,000 new COVID infections, over the same period the US (1 country, population 330m) reported approximately 670,000 new infections. Source: Johns Hopkins.
Colonel Curtis Milam served 26 years on active duty and has over 4,000 flight hours in the C-130. He has served tours at the Pentagon, NATO HQ and US Embassy, Budapest.