Ground the Planes

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
11 min readMar 25, 2021

What may be the most effective way to stop huge surges in infections during a pandemic?

Ground the planes.

Just do it. Tell the airlines: “No. You’re not booking hundreds of extra flights to Florida this week.”

I wish I’d written this a month ago, because now it’s too late to stop the new crisis that spring break may hand us.

Last Thanksgiving, I actually did write a note suggesting this to the editors of The New York Times editorial page. It was deemed a bit crazy.

I don’t think it is. Taking charge of air travel and throttling it back in places would be easy for the White House. It would almost undoubtedly be effective, even though it has not been tried in the United States.

We know from bitter experience that air travel provokes surges.

Late last November, we saw a surge of cases clearly linked to Thanksgiving travel. In December and January, we saw a second surge linked to Christmas travel.

From The New York Times Coronavirus Tracker

Now we’re looking at another.

“We just do not want have a rapid uptick in cases — we are behind the 8-ball when that happens,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week. “Now is not the time to travel.”

Plane travel has two dangers: First, it exposes hundreds of people to each other in close quarters. Even when mask discipline is rigidly enforced inside the planes, it falls apart in long waiting lines, airport restaurants, buses to rental car lots, hotel lobbies and so on.

Second, it obligates strangers from different viral networks to swap their exhaled breath with each other (more on this later.)

A surge linked to spring break travel is bad news for our vaccine efforts. Even if cases do not surge nationwide, the criss-crossing of viral networks in Florida will almost inevitably move new variants — notably the South African one — to places where it was not seen before.

Last year’s spring break almost certainly spread the virus. Although that cannot be seen in the virus tracker…

Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer