The Coronavirus is undoubtedly affecting us all in some way. Hopefully for everyone reading this, beyond some barren grocery store shelves and a lack of social engagements, all things remain well. But let’s face it, this situation is dire for many individuals, families and even entire countries. And globally, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. However, sometimes I think things don’t really sink in until someone we know—one of our own—like family, friend, or even a fellow rider—has an encounter or experience before we can fully relate to it. Well, Brian Kachinsky was recently in Portugal for BMX related travel when it was announced that the USA was banning all travel from Europe (before they later clarified the ban didn’t apply to US citizens). From the fear and confusion of potentially being stuck overseas from his wife and baby, to getting on a packed plane, to being interviewed by CDC officials upon landing, and finally, being in self quarantine for two weeks at home, Brian recounted the experience for us and sheds some light on the what it’s really like to be traveling during one of the most tense times in recent history.
As far as travel goes, it’s been turbulent times for the last few weeks due to concerns over the Coronavirus. Did you have any trepidation going to Portugal in the first place?
In fear of sounding like too much of a “tough guy” I wasn’t really concerned much leading up to my trip to Portugal. I took a cautious approach and researched facts like “Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Portugal” prior to my trip. After some factual researching, I realized that there were more confirmed cases AT HOME in Illinois/USA than there were in Portugal. From there I was just mindful about keeping my hands clean, not touching my face, not shaking hands, etc. The handwashing part was easy for me, but I love shaking hands so that was tough to get used to. All in all, I felt pretty safe and didn’t feel like I was in any overt danger by traveling to Portugal.
From what I chose to highlight on social media, it probably looked like I was there on a whim or vacation. Truth is, I was headed there for the annual UCI BMX Freestyle Judging Summit. During these meetings we talk about how we can improve judging and we also do some training using video footage of contests from the previous year and talk through our methods.
During my free moments outside of meetings, I always like to go search, ride and explore…because that’s what makes me happy—I ride. I’ll sacrifice time for meals, drinks and sleep in exchange for extra moments to ride and explore. I feel like I’m doing myself a disservice if I fly across the world and don’t see more than a hotel or conference room. I’m always hungry to see what’s around the next corner.
From the looks of your Instagram the first few days of your trip were pretty much what every rider hopes for when traveling to a new city with loads of great spots and a welcoming crew of locals…
Yes! The first couple days were amazing. I was definitely jet lagged the first day there but put my bike together, had two cups of coffee and went out for a pedal. I found so much gold just a short distance from where I was staying. As luck would have it, I was also there on the tenth anniversary of the #4afBMX sessions the Lisbon locals have been doing weekly for the past decade.
Paulo Martins, a life-long rider from Lisbon invited me out to the session to celebrate this community of riders and their dedication to keeping the scene alive. March 11th was an epic day. I rode awesome street spots and then joined the session at night with the locals. They were extremely welcoming and I was super inspired how they pushed aside excuses for ten years and made these weekly sessions a priority. I respect them so much for this. It was an honor to be a part of, even if it was just by chance/luck.
How long were you in Lisbon before you first thought about getting on the next flight out of there? And what was that turning point?
I was in Lisbon for about 48 hours when things really started to take a turn. Of course, I was keeping an eye on the news a bit, but I was more-busy just enjoying life and riding in this wonderful country.
That’s when the text came from my wife “You gotta come back before Friday. Shit just got real.”
I tuned into the news, but my internet was being slow. I didn’t really panic at first because I thought to myself “how could they realistically do this? There’s likely hundreds of thousands of Americans in Europe right now and we all can’t get home in 24 hours. There aren’t enough planes.”
The first announcement from USA leadership DID NOT state that this travel ban didn’t apply to US citizens. That caused massive confusion. So I got the phone at 1:30am trying to get more info about what the hell was happening. My wife made it very clear that I should come home ASAP. She was afraid I’d be stranded there and not be able to come home for weeks. I was only supposed to be there for another six days.
What happened when you looked into flights?
This was the part that woke me the fuck up. I called the airline phone number I always call if some issue arises while traveling. Since I have airline status from traveling so much, I usually get in touch with an agent within a minute or less. The agent usually picks up, solves the issue and all is good. NOT THIS TIME. I called and got a busy signal and then it just hung up on me. I tried again. Same thing. Tried again. Same thing. Nothing. No one. That’s what got me worried about potentially getting stuck. I thought “I am not unique, there are TONS of Americans in my same position right now.” I might be fucked.
Damn. That must have been an eye opener. What did you do next?
It’s now 2am and I can’t get ahold of anyone on the phone or airline website. The US Embassy in Portugal isn’t answering calls as well. So I grab my passport and wallet and walk to the airport, which was only about ten minutes from our hotel.
It was pretty empty when I first walked in and my head was on a swivel looking for anyone that might know what the hell is going on. I turn the corner and could see travelers starting to pile up by the airline counters. The thing is, no one was at the airline counters. No one knew this was coming, even the airlines.
I ended up overhearing some people talk that sounded like they had American accents. I struck up conversation with them, but they were as clueless as I was. I then chatted with group of college students from Washington DC who notified me that they’d talked to the US Embassy in Portugal. They said “We called and told the US Embassy this was going on. They had no idea this was happening. We are just college students and we were the first people to let the Embassy know that they were closing borders.” This infuriated me. How could this happen with no prior notification to the US Embassy? Insanely unprofessional.
I hung out for an hour trying to get to a desk where I could book a flight home. No one would be physically there from the airline for several hours so I eventually decided to go back to the hotel and gather my things and get a few hours of sleep because I was exhausted. Around 4:30am I’d learned that US citizens were exempt from this. I came to the realization that this was out of my control. It was best for me at this point to get a few hours of sleep. Afterall, if I don’t sleep, I’ll probably get sick—even if it’s not from the COVID-19 virus.
Can you describe what was it like watching the COVID-19 situation grow increasingly worse with each news cast while being on the other side of the Atlantic away from home?
I eventually just had to put my phone down and go to sleep. I would need to be fully recharged in order to accurately deal with this. In the meantime. My wife had sent me screenshots of potential flights home. They were THOUSANDS of dollars! I was ready to pull the credit card out and pay. Eventually, I decided to just wait to see if I can get that flight fee waived given the circumstances.
I was offered to pay $1,000 for a flight home the following morning or wait two days and fly home for free. I decided to wait two days since I already had a hotel room paid for and the virus infection cases were still limited in Portugal. It ended up being the right thing to do financially, but those were two VERY stressful days of me thinking “what if they just end up cancelling all flights? I’m still one decision away from being fucked.”
The hardest part was the conflicting information coming from the USA government and lack of communication. My family was worried. My friends were worried. I was calm, but it hurt to see them so stressed. The thought of being away from my family when all this was happening was starting to wear on me.
As far as the virus is concerned, what were things like on the ground in Lisbon?
In Lisbon, it wasn’t as chaotic as the USA. Since the outbreak had been limited there, they were taking new precautions every day but it didn’t seem like hysteria. They closed schools and big venues a few days before the USA did, but they seemed to remain calm for the most part. The most noticeable thing was the streets being pretty empty in parts of town that were usually bustling on a Friday night. It was dead quiet. It was very noticeable that things had changed drastically.
It was interesting being with people from all corners of the globe during this time. Hearing how each person’s nation was dealing with it was enlightening—and in some cases, it was a preview for how things were about to get in the USA.
The trip home must’ve been quite the ordeal, what was the return flight like?
The return flight was packed with US citizens trying to get back home. Originally the flight had a ton of open seats. I was supposed to have a row to myself. Just a few hours later the flight was completely booked solid. I was still calm, but my senses were heightened. There were some people on the plane who were coughing up a lung. That usually wouldn’t bother me, but this time I was noticing it.
I went about my business and was armed with plenty of wipes and sanitizer to keep myself clean. Those were impossible to find in stores by this point, but I always carry some because I fall and cut myself on filthy ground often enough to now bring that stuff with me when I travel. I’m well aware that this virus would be something my immune system could likely overcome, but that’s not the case for many others.
When you landed is when it really got serious, right? Describe that process for us…
This is when it got more surreal. Upon landing in at EWR (Newark, NJ) from Portugal, we were instructed by agents to stay seated after parking at the gate. One passenger got up for a toilet emergency and got yelled at and told to sit back down immediately. That initiated a weird “you are all suspects” vibe, BUT I totally get it. They want to display seriousness. Understandable. That just set the tone for what was to come… When the Fed agents boarded the plane they instructed us on what was going to happen with our screening process and subsequent immigration procedures. They also instructed us to stay self-quarantined for 14 days and also take our temperature every day for the next 14 days. (hovering around a cool 97.9 over here)
We then went single file off the plane and were met with agents in operating room/haz mat style masks who one-by-one took our temperature via forehead scanner. We then had to stand in duct tape squares which were about 4x6ft while we waited to be interviewed by a CDC agent…
Basically, they asked where we’d been and if we were around sick people, how long we were where, who we may have come in contact with, etc. This was after previously filling out a new CDC form with the similar questions and your personal info: name, address you’re headed to, phone number, email, seat row and number, etc.
After evaluating the form, taking temp and interview, etc. You were then stamped and sent to the usual DHS Customs & Immigration officers. They asked the usual customs questions, but seemed overwhelmed. I found it interesting that none of the second wave of officers were wearing masks, nor gloves—maybe the first and second wave of CDC officials make protections not needed for the officers, but that’s not what I’ve read from the CDC. From there I went on to my next plane to ORD (Chicago O’Hare)—this aforementioned experience was all at EWR (Newark).
You got tested, came up negative, and now you’re feeling fine at home, so why do you still have a two week quarantine?
This is when I learned something new about this virus. I got tested for SYMPTOMS. That is good, but really doesn’t mean shit as far as being in the clear. Apparently, you can be asymptomatic (have zero symptoms and feel well) yet still pass the virus on to others. You can sometimes be asymptomatic for up to two weeks before you aren’t transmissible (able to pass the virus along to others). That factor warrants the need to stay away from others.
The USA is currently lacking the testing kits and capabilities to keep up with diagnosing this accurately. They’re rationing the kits based on severity of symptoms. The results aren’t fast either. Even if you’re lucky enough to be tested. The results won’t come for 4-5 days. There are only about 100 people in the entire USA currently who can administer and analyze RAPID tests—which take a couple hours. Since we have only 100 people capable of that. It’s hard to keep up with all 330+ million people in the USA.
How’s that going sharing an apartment with a wife and baby?
This is incredibly difficult. Anytime I arrive home I immediately kiss my wife and hold my son. I can’t do that—AT ALL—for two weeks. It hurts. But this isn’t about me. This is bigger than me and my sacrifices. My wife works at a hospital, which is the first line of care for the ill. Imagine if I unknowingly infected her and she went to work to help sick patients. I wouldn’t’ be able to live with that guilt on my conscience. There’s a chance it could go the other way, maybe she’ll get infected at work and infect me at home. That would suck, but at least it’s not my doing. I would rather be the roadblock and take a hit. I can handle taking a hit. I don’t want to be the one who fans the flames and causes spread of this deadly virus.
This will be tough, but I’ve certainly endured worse and I’m not unique in this situation. At least I’m healthy and not blindly potentially hurting anyone else. Even though Portugal’s infection rate is reportedly lower than many USA states, I’ve been on planes, in airports, meetings, restaurants, bathrooms, elevators, hotel rooms, etc. for the past couple days. Best to respect others that might not have a strong immune system.
All that being said, this seems like no joke/hoax/etc. The last time I’ve had this vibe while traveling was shortly after 9/11. This is very different circumstances all together, but feels like a similar level of seriousness and precaution. I wouldn’t get arrested for disobeying quarantine guidelines and I wouldn’t get a medal of honor for obeying them. Neither of those things will dissuade me from doing what I think is right.
Obviously, this is a serious situation, but with so much information, speculation, and rumors abound, from your personal experience, what is your takeaway from this experience and do you have any advice you’d like to share?
Luckily, my wife is a doctor. I was just listening in on a conference call with an infectious disease specialist whom is giving her daily briefing to doctors and nurses across an entire local hospital system. This gave me a more-clear scope of this issue. It’s important to know that these specialists are the ones to get information from. Not every doctor is a specialist in this area, including my wife. My wife is a highly skilled surgeon and even she needs these daily briefings to stay educated on the changes of this pandemic.
One major issue: The USA is currently lacking the testing kits and capabilities to keep up with diagnosing this accurately. They’re rationing the kits based on severity of symptoms. The results aren’t fast either. Even if you’re lucky enough to be tested. The results won’t come for 4-5 days. There are only about 100 people in the entire USA currently who can administer and analyze RAPID tests which take a couple hours. Since we have only 100 specialists in the entire USA capable of that, it’s hard to keep up with all 330+ million people in the USA.
For now, they can only test people with symptoms or people who were in DIRECT CONTACT with people with COVID-19. If you are sick, stay at home unless symptoms get worse than you’ve ever experienced. If that happens, go to the hospital. For the majority of young people reading this, you might stay healthy, but definitely take major precautions.
Thanks for letting me share this experience. I’ve had plenty of weird things happen while traveling. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, a new challenge popped up. This affects all of us in so many ways. It’s a common struggle. The happy ending for now; I’m home, I feel healthy, my wife is beautiful and my baby is cute. I hope you all stay happy and healthy both physically and mentally. Don’t forget to laugh a little and wash your hands. I’m confident we will overcome this.