This June, the airport expects to serve around 850,000 passengers — that’s a huge increase, but still only about 70% of 2019 passenger levels. Credit: Amir Aziz

As the country begins its slow road to recovery after a pandemic that’s torn through communities east to west, people are starting to resume social activities — among them, traveling.

This Fourth of July weekend marks somewhat of a milestone for getting back to “normal.” President Joe Biden has said since his inauguration that his goal was for this holiday to be a turning point — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given those who are vaccinated the OK to celebrate in groups, travel, and essentially do whatever they would have in the past. 

A lot of people seem to be ready to do just that.  

More than 47.7 million Americans plan to travel this Independence Day — that’s just 2.5 percent less than in 2019 and nearly a 40% increase from 2020, according to a new survey from AAA Travel.  

While the CDC has officially given vaccinated individuals the go ahead to travel within the United States, it’s asked unvaccinated individuals to delay their travel plans unless essential (and if they must, they should follow a series of precautions including testing, quarantining, and wearing a mask.)

I’m among the roughly 58% of Californians who are fully vaccinated (and nearly 68% in Alameda County), receiving my second shot of the Moderna vaccine in early April. Following the CDC’s updated travel guidelines, I pulled the plug on planning my first “post-pandemic” vacation. That’s a term that I use loosely since the country is still not out of the woods yet, given new variants and only roughly 46% of the population fully vaccinated. 

I made the decision to plan a vacation after reading extensively about vaccination rates, the success of vaccines, and safety protocols. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve helped contribute The Oaklandside’s continuous newsroom coverage about COVID-19, so for personal and professional reasons, I’ve been following the advice of medical experts such as Sam Horwich-Scholefield with the Alameda County Public Health Department and Bob Wachter, the chair of the University of San Francisco’s department of medicine. 

Their guidance was crucial in deciding that planning a vacation was safe. Once I felt comfortable, my boyfriend and I got to planning our trip to New Orleans (where only 34.3% of the population is fully vaccinated), and we bought our airfare to fly out of Oakland International Airport for early June. 

Travel through OAK — the second busiest airport in the Bay Area — has been picking up as of late, according to OAK Spokesperson Roberto Bernardo and Kaley Skantz. In June 2020, the airport saw a total of 255,052 passengers. This June, the airport expects to serve around 850,000 passengers — that’s a huge increase, but still only about 70% of 2019 passenger levels. In terms of this Fourth of July holiday weekend, OAK is expecting about 160,000 travelers from July 1-5 alone — more than triple the 2020 levels for the same five-day period.

Travelers have returned to Oakland International Airport in record numbers nearing the opening of the state of California due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Credit: Amir Aziz.

For our early June trip, we chose to catch an early 7 a.m. flight on a Friday, hoping to somewhat beat the weekend crowds. At such an early hour, the wait for a Lyft or Uber was longer than normal. The same delay happened when we arrived back home close to midnight, and appears to be the case for many travelers due to a shortage of drivers, happening in part due to drivers quitting during the pandemic and not returning. The decrease in the number of drivers also means higher fares. 

The situation seems to be improving gradually — Lyft recently announced that compared to the month of May, the number of drivers has increased by 10%, and the wait time is down 15-20%. 

But if you’re planning on using a ride-sharing service to get you to the airport, give yourself plenty of extra time. For those who prefer public transportation, keep in mind that BART is still closing around 9 p.m., and regular service won’t return until August 30. Like the airports, you must wear a mask in Lyfts, Ubers, taxis and on public transportation. BART has this requirement in place until at least September 30. 

When we arrived at the airport, we headed to the Delta counter, which was deserted compared to the packed Southwest and Hawaiian airlines check-in lines. According to Bernardo, the current top destinations flying out of OAK are: Southern California, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Reno, Phoenix, Denver, and the Pacific Northwest region (including Seattle, Portland, Idaho, and Montana).

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration still requires masks at airports and planes throughout the country, no matter what local orders dictate and regardless of vaccination status. That order extends until Sept. 13 and applies to all people over the age of 2, with exemptions for some disabilities. 

The TSA checkpoint went smoothly — while social distancing wasn’t really happening, all airport employees wore masks, and passengers only had to pull down their face coverings briefly to show the agent their face after their IDs were scanned. 

When it came time to board, out of an abundance of caution, we decided to swap our cloth masks for KN95 for the duration of the flight. 

The current top destinations flying out of OAK are Southern California, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Reno, Phoenix, Denver, and the Pacific Northwest region (including Seattle, Portland, Idaho, and Montana). Credit: Amir Aziz

I expected to feel anxious being around strangers in a confined space after so many months holed up, but I found the experience of waiting at the gate surprisingly easy. On the day we flew out, people at OAK gates were keeping physical distance and wearing masks unless they sipping a drink or eating. The same can’t be said during both layovers at LAX and Salt Lake City, though, where the airports were crowded and distance was minimal. 

Once on board the plane, we received individually wrapped wet wipes. Still, we chose to wipe down our trays with medical-grade sanitizing wipes for peace of mind, even though airline policy is to sanitize planes in between flights. 

Our plane was completely full. If you were hoping to have the middle seat blocked off for extra space, know that most airlines lifted that restriction and you likely won’t get that luxury. 

You’ll also need to wear a mask for the duration of the flight unless drinking or eating. While incidents with rowdy passengers refusing masks have been on the rise, I was glad to have been spared such a scene. Due to the rise in violent behavior among passengers refusing to abide by the mask rule, American Airlines and Southwest have postponed serving alcohol until Sept. 13 when the federal mask mandate rule in planes is set to be lifted, but may be extended. 

Overall, the ride was smooth, and when I landed in New Orleans I was more than ready for a change of scenery.

This June, the airport expects to serve around 850,000 passengers — that’s a huge increase, but still only about 70% of 2019 passenger levels. Credit: Amir Aziz.

It’s understandable some people still have hesitations about flying. I did, too. It took me a while to feel ready. In the end, I felt confident in the vaccine’s ability to keep me safe and realized that being able to travel — due to being fully inoculated and having the financial means — is a privilege. Unfortunately, our neighbors in other countries have not been given the same opportunities to get vaccinated. In Mexico, only 13.69% of the country is fully vaccinated. Other countries like Venezuela, Honduras, Taiwan, and Syria all fall below the 1% mark. 

For many of us who are choosing to venture out of our homes again, socializing, traveling, and roaming around without masks is still taking time to get used to. 

Traveling out of state to the south was eye-opening, given how freely people have done away with pandemic precautions. I went into the trip blindly, not knowing what being inside a restaurant or packed bar would be like. Once there, though, I felt grateful to get out of the house and see how people are slowly rebuilding after what we all collectively went through.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.