We all need a vacation from COVID-19.

But in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not likely any time soon. Sorry to be a downer, but after a week at the beach, our annual family vacation was impacted by the global pandemic in many ways, some subtle and some obvious.

If you have been able to get away on a vacation this year, you have experienced this firsthand. If you are still planning or hoping to get away, you are sweating the unknowns.

waves come to shore at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
The foaming waves catch the light of daybreak during my morning walk at Santa Rosa Beach.

Our family has been to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., 17 of the past 18 years. We anticipate this annual trip for a season, like Advent before Christmas, planning and reminiscing for weeks before actually heading south to the panhandle of Florida.

Now that it’s over, here are the ways COVID-19 impacted our vacation this year and what you should consider if planning a trip this summer:

Scheduling. We knew this year would be different from the beginning. We initially booked our week at the beach beginning Memorial Day weekend so that our oldest son could join us. He was supposed to spend the summer working as a staffer at Passport Choices camp in Greensboro, N.C., but when that opportunity succumbed to the global pandemic, we moved our reservation to a week later in the summer. We also didn’t know if the beaches of South Walton would even be open Memorial Day week. As it turned out, they opened that weekend, but we were glad we moved our booking back. That gave us time to see how COVID conditions might change. As our departure date neared, the resurgence of coronavirus made us afraid we might have to cancel. Fortunately, nothing interfered, and we were able to make the trip as re-scheduled.

Masking. A few years ago, we discovered we could “steal” an extra day of vacation by leaving early on check-in day, beating the inevitable Atlanta exodus to the 30-A area. We could have our lunch poolside while we waited for check-in at our beach house or condo unit after cleaning. This year, the early departure had the added benefit of limiting the number of people we encountered by making fewer stops. We weren’t so careful as to avoid public restrooms altogether, but we couldn’t help but notice that we were the only ones at the rest area south of Eufaula, Ala., wearing masks. While the debate about whether to mask or not raged nationally, we saw it play out firsthand everywhere we went all week. For the record, the unmasked far outnumbered the masked.

Social distancing. While we don’t avoid people on our vacation, we also don’t mix and mingle. We have regular activities we enjoy as a family that don’t bring us into contact with anyone: cooking and eating in, playing board and card games, riding bikes and taking walks, reading and watching movies. But there are components of a beach vacation that unavoidably include other people: going to the beach, splashing in the pool, going out to eat, shopping, or taking in a movie. This year we limited our shopping and the movie was out of the question. We tried our best to keep our physical distance while at the beach and pool. The first day at the beach, we were a little unnerved by how close the umbrellas and chairs were set by the outfitter. The rest of the week we never had anyone on both sides of us at the same time, so spreading out was easier. I spent most of my time in the water, which also made avoiding people easier. There were times when the social distance alarm bells were going off in our heads. Ditto for restaurants. We ate out a few times, each time after Carla called and interrogated the restaurant staff on their safety precautions. We felt OK about half the time. The worst was arriving extremely early at Captain Anderson’s in Panama City only to discover that social distancing was observed inside the restaurant, but the queue forming out front before opening was a cattle call of people more concerned about getting fresh hushpuppies than maintaining a COVID-free aerosol zone.

Doubting. Any time we found ourselves near people, we questioned the safety of what we were doing. There were plenty of times this vacation felt as if we were living dangerously compared to the three months of lockdown we had just experienced. When we were the only ones wearing masks, we felt self-conscious. When we didn’t wear a mask, we felt irresponsible. We questioned everything. It was annoying and not an emotion we had thought much about beforehand. It was a constant battle.

Keeping up. I’m in the communications business, so part of my unplugging on vacation is avoiding the news. This was impossible this year. Every shred of COVID news was shared and discussed, particularly as it related to the reopening of Gwinnett County Public Schools and the University System of Georgia institutions. After a couple of days, our children asked us to stop discussing it in front of them. They wanted to be on vacation and not think about school in any form, digital or otherwise. And just when we could let go of any alarming new “surging numbers” reports, we encountered a laminated sign on the gate to the pool reminding us of safety precautions. COVID-19 was never far from our thoughts.

Joking. There has been quite a bit of gallows humor to help us cope with the pandemic. With three boys all trying to out-do each other with wisecracks, the potentially offensive humor of COVID-19 was ever present in our joking. My favorite and most oft-repeated line of the week: “I’ll bet they got some of that COVID in there.” Our giggles revealed our anxiety. We were all worried about it to some degree, and no amount of joking could completely alleviate the concern.

Now that vacation is over, and we’re heading back home, we’re interested to see how well we did at staying safe. If we can make it the next two weeks without signs of infection, we’ll call our vacation a success. But every clearing of the throat, cough, sneeze or headache is going to give us pause. We’re on high alert for symptoms now, and the hangover from our vacation is a bout of anxiety that is unavoidable if you are planning to get away.

Vacation 2020 is just like everything else in this season of COVID-19, fraught with worry, doubt and decisions. With the federal and local governments ending mandatory shelter-in-place orders and allowing businesses to re-open, everyone has to make up their own mind about what is an acceptable level of risk.

I can say for us that mental health was an important consideration. All of us needed to get away. We couldn’t imagine not taking this trip after we spent so much time planning and anticipating. It’s so hardwired into our family’s calendar and traditions that if there was any way we thought we could pull this off, even if it was just a delusion, we had to make the attempt.

The Wallace Family Beach Vacation 2020 certainly will be memorable. I’m hoping that in two weeks, we’ll be able to say it was memorable in a good way.

If you are among the lucky ones who have taken your vacation, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 impacted you, and if you are planning to travel soon, I’d be curious to hear what’s worrying you. Share your thoughts in a comment below. It’ll feel better just to get that out there.

Stay safe and be well.


4 thoughts on “COVID Beach

  1. Hi Carla and Lance
    We have made 3 trips to PCB. W enjoy every trip and have been able to social distance at the beach and has been good for our mental health. We eat at home or occasionally get take out. Grocery shopping and Home Depot runs are done with mask. Even with all the precautions we still have those occasions of feeling we are at risk as same here with very few wearing mask and some people not social distancing. We have the same exact worries everytime. I will say the good outweighs the worry. So far so good avoiding the virus. We will be on the lookout for symptoms for the next 14 days. Glad you went forward with your vacation.

  2. Yes, but the important question is, did you get a tan?

    PCB, my favorite place for regrouping of mental health. Unfortunately, the rest of my family is not interested in the beach life, so I make some solo trips sometimes meeting my girlfiends for a “beach” retreat.

    Glad you all had a good trip!

    1. I’m not really a tan guy. More burn and peel. Since they started cutting skin cancers off of me a few years ago, I’ve been wearing a fashionable long-sleeve swim shirt. I added a huge straw hat this year for maximum effect!

  3. Lance, just got back from Ormond Beach, Fla. Beach there was not crowded. Wore masks at grocery store and only did take out. Although masks were ‘required’ in common areas of condo and at the store, most folks did not wear them. We did. You are right, we were in the minority. Very surprised at gas stations and rest stops the lack of masks. People are just plain st**id.

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