Just weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters thronged the streets of Hong Kong and its international airport.
Today, dozens of heavy jets sit parked on the airport tarmac with no one waiting to fly. The terminal inside is nearly deserted. Restaurants, hotels and the streets are empty. The few who do venture out are wearing masks. Visitors have their temperature taken several times a day by hotel staff and others.
In the space of just one month, Hong Kong seems to have nearly shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak.
I regularly fly freight to and from Hong Kong and other cities around the world, and life has changed rapidly and dramatically in the past few weeks.
The situation is much the same in parts of South Korea. On my way to Hong Kong, I recently had a stopover on a commercial flight in Incheon, which seems tense but is still disconnected from the hustle of Seoul to the east.
More and more masks are being seen on the streets, and the hotel staff are never caught without them anymore. The lobby has a tripod with what looks like someone’s nice home camera attached to the top, and a bundle of wires tethering it to a laptop on a desk distinguishes it as a thermal camera hunting for anyone bringing a fever into the hotel. I’d seen these set-ups first in Hong Kong.
As our crew checked into the hotel last weekend, we were asked by desk staff — through voices muffled under surgical masks — if we had been to China or Hong Kong in the past 14 days. The Hong Kong question was new, and the young attendant was shocked to find out that, of course, we had — we all had — many times over.
We got a pass on Hong Kong, but had it been Wuhan we would have been denied a room. These lines of questioning are becoming more common in all our destinations.
I’m sure it’s awkward to ask any stranger to take their temperature outside of a medical setting, as the typically polite desk staff have had to do for every guest entering the building. Leaning over the large desk with a cheap, digital thermometer for every guest was an obvious stopgap, and was no less comforting when I was shown my own reading was 36.6 Celsius, which I assumed was good but was too tired to do the math on.
I’m getting my temperature checked around five times a day now, in the lobby, gym, even to enter the hotel breakfast area. It’s 5 a.m., and as I’m walking downstairs to meet the car that will take me to the airport, I notice the work has been outsourced to a makeshift checkpoint at the exit of the elevator, fashioned with ropes to make a queue to a station where someone with a nicer looking thermometer, possibly a Fahrenheit one, checks every newcomer.
My commercial flight to Hong Kong on this day is on Korean Air, and as my driver arrives, unexpectedly wearing a mask now himself, a notification informs me that the aircraft has changed from a Boeing 777 to a smaller 737. Any confusion about this change is quickly removed as I enter the terminal to find myself largely alone.
Usually my experiences in Korea take place on cargo aprons, so finding myself alone in one of the most modern, excruciatingly clean terminals in the world is by itself somewhat novel, but it’s 10 minutes until boarding and the gate area is abandoned as well.
My lonely, baby blue 737 sits at a massive gate, hugged on either side by empty widebody jets and too few people to fill a single one of them. On board, less than 20 people join me on a journey usually undertaken by hundreds in an aircraft four times this size and several times a day by both Korean and Cathay Pacific. I’m the only passenger not wearing a mask.
As I deplane in Hong Kong, I am greeted at the gate by my escort, a remnant of my company’s fears of the turmoil during the Hong Kong Summer protests. My escort is a Hong Kong native with a fairly common British accent, a three-piece suit, large, round glasses and an N95 surgical mask that covers most of the rest of his face.
In the U.S., the sight of surgical masks might take you aback or elicit questions about a person’s health or immune system.
But Asia has embraced them, and the sight of even children wearing small masks, adorned with cartoons or vibrant patterns, is common. Initially I thought it was sad to see a little girl having her mother help her put a mask on, like a kid would ask for help with shoes before leaving the house, but this isn’t Colorado.
After all, diseases such as SARS are in the living memory of this entire region, and that fear has returned. Now, I might see one person, usually American or Australian, who has skipped covering their face. Not wanting to bear the dirty looks I’m sure I will receive should I remain maskless from my flight, I quickly don my own from my checked bag. The only time my mask comes off is at immigration.
A sign on the glass in front of the officer tells everyone to show their face as passports are checked, and underneath hangs a taped warning to all travelers that a quarantine is in effect should they have visited Wuhan in the past two weeks. Here, not only was I asked about travel to China, but the officer thumbed every page of my passport looking for the stamp.
As we walk, my handler points out the empty terminal and his own concerns about the impacts this will have on the fragile economy. On previous trips, we waded through a sea of travelers, packing one end of the massive, open terminal to the other. Just six months ago several thousand descended on the arrivals hall during a protest.
The barriers and checkpoints erected in the days afterward are still here, but they seem excessive now that they are controlling just a handful of people. Like others in Hong Kong, he sounds fatigued by current events and tells me he isn’t sure how much longer small businesses can hold on. The protests had a big impact on the city that relies so heavily on a constant influx of foreign travelers and their money.
Our crew has returned to a ghost town that seems thankful to have us.
Last week one staff member told me that their massive, downtown hotel, previously at capacity on a nightly basis, spent the summer averaging 40 rooms a night, compared to the hundreds they can usually sell.
This was after they asked me, shocked, if my mask was a real 3M one. The “cheap” surgical style are selling for about $10 each right now, and only after waiting in line, they tell me. A real, respirator-style 3M mask? As good as actual money now and seen only on pilots who have flown them in themselves.
I’m not sure what the lasting effects of this virus will be, and like my escort through the Hong Kong airport, I find it unnerving. Hong Kong is resilient, open to immediate action and change to combat COVID-19.
The change in this city has been breathtaking and frankly, everyone seems ready to fight the outbreak, whether it be by accepting constant mask wearing, voluntary quarantines or the rollout of hand sanitizer units installed like ATM’s all over the city and seemingly overnight.
Flying between these two extremes on a regular basis highlights very differing styles of governance and reaction to these hardships.
As I watch the U.S. prepare and hope that the coronavirus doesn’t spread as far in our cities and towns, it makes me thankful every time I take off back across the Pacific for home in Colorado.
Nic Morrey is a pilot who lives in Arapahoe County.