After February 2020, our trips were mostly based on our estimation of risk. At first, we tried finding places favorable to social distancing because that seemed to be the most important thing when it came to avoiding sickness.
We ended up staying at Airbnb cabins and timeshare suites with our buddies who were in our travel bubble. If things got bad or if we were uncomfortable during the trip, we agreed that we’d hole up and just enjoy the time together. As it turned out, our trips were a mixture of the two as we explored during the day but also spent time at home base, not of necessity but because we enjoyed each other’s company.
We were looking to book another Airbnb for mid-June 2021 and were scouting locations. Our friends visit Panama City Beach, FL (PCB) regularly. Being from the Atlanta area, it’s a shorter drive for them to get there than it is for us from Orlando. Before we started looking for places to stay, our friends asked if we really wanted to visit PCB because the usual visitors are more likely to think COVID is a hoax and mask requirements as an infringement on their personal freedoms.
Since we were all fully vaccinated, we felt OK with booking a trip. Sharon and I were re-entering the world and had even gone out to dinner and sat inside, so we felt ready to be in a world where people didn’t care about social distancing or COVID protocols.
We made the 6+ hour drive from Orlando, only stopping for bathroom breaks, gas and a quick bite to eat at a mostly empty Wendy’s in Tallahassee. After arriving at our Airbnb (a two-story, 2 bedroom beach-adjacent condo) we settled in and looked for somewhere to eat dinner.
We picked a place our friends recommended which was a 5 min drive away. As we drove up, the parking lot was OVER CAPACITY!!! The line to wait for a table wrapped down the stairs and beside the building and the nearby alligator lagoon. We all looked a that and gave a big NO.
We ended up driving to the other end of PCB and found a place that only had a moderate wait. We grabbed seats at the bar (another post-COVID first), ordered some apps and waited for a table. Without asking, we were seated on the upstairs deck, and had a good, albeit frantic dinner with too few servers helping too many tables.
This was a trend we found throughout our entire trip. Panama City Beach was PACKED!!!!! Here’s the line we found to get donuts.
When we visited Pier Park, the PCB’s main shopping mall, the parking lot was full of cars everywhere in the Southeastern US. Besides Florida, there were license plates from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee.
At the time, we didn’t think anything about walking through the outdoor mall surrounded by a throng of unmasked visitors. While some stores still required masks, that mandate wasn’t followed when on the line to enter. Much like our visit to Key West, I was “amazed” (to put it sarcastically) that everyone on vacation was vaccinated (since people not fully vaccinated were still supposed to be wearing masks). When I look at the people visiting Panama City Beach, many travel from places glowing “baboon butt red” with new COVID cases, along with vaccination rates lower than the national average.
But that was just the original form of COVID, back in June.
With the delta variant raging and vaccinated people still at risk of getting infected with symptomatic and possibly spreadable cases of COVID, I don’t think that I’d feel as comfortable about a visit there as I did just a month ago. Orange County, Florida just reinstated an indoor mask mandate (and Disney World followed shortly thereafter). Still, I can’t see the mayors of towns on Florida’s panhandle, let alone the FL governor following the same guidelines set forth by the CDC.
Saying all of that, the one place where we could get some alone time was at the beach. This picture was taken by the main pier but we also found plenty of space near our condo located far away from the main hotel/tourist area.
When it comes to the main strip, that will be a big pass from me until case numbers go back down or vaccination rates increase. Aren’t both of those things connected?
Checking the numbers, Bay County (which is home to Panama City Beach) announced 994 new cases for the 7 days ending on July 23rd. That’s the highest number of new cases for any time during the pandemic, and I’m sure many of them are the delta variant. As of June 4th, Florida only announces numbers once weekly so it’s tough to see developing trends until it’s too late. We’ll get new numbers every Friday since the state doesn’t seem to be willing to go back to releasing data daily, even with 20% of the new COVID cases in the United States coming from Florida.
Travel in the midst of the pandemic has always been a matter of risk evaluation. While it seemed like we were getting to the end of the process, we might actually be closer to the middle. It looks like I’m going to get to put my pandemic planning skills to the test for longer than I hoped.
Unfortunately, this also means sayōnara to our end-of-the-year trip to Japan. I guess there’s always 2022.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary