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Unmasking the Travel Experience to New York Amid the Pandemic

knickerbocker-hotel-dancer-new-york-city

Among the cooler masks you’ll see during the pandemic is this one sported by a dancer at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Travel restrictions are lifting and many Canadians are eager to pack up and fly. On October 21, the federal government stopped advising against non-essential travel, giving a green light to those who are staycationed out to venture far and wide, and one of the most popular destinations figures to be the Big Apple. On November 8, the United States will re-open to Canadians for non-essential travel but getting there, getting back, and the experience of many things in between will have changed since your last visit to Broadway and beyond.

I was in Manhattan for one week in October for a work conference and here are some observations and tips to keep in mind as you travel while the COVID-19 pandemic still simmers.

You Need a PCR COVID-19 Pre-Flight Test

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Among the newer spots to see in New York is City Winery, located at Rockefeller Center. The San Sebastian-style wine bar serves tapas and wine outside while diners stand at barrels or sit on picnic tables. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

When you book an appointment for a pre-flight COVID-19 screening, be aware that there are multiple tests available and you must know which one is required for the destination you’re headed. The United States and Canada require a negative molecular/PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test for COVID-19 72 hours or less before your departing flight and again before your return flight. If you have a connecting flight within Canada, the first leg of your journey is what falls within the 72-hour limit. For example, in my case, I had the PCR test on a Friday at noon and I was departing Vancouver at 9 a.m. on the following Monday, and connecting in Toronto for the flight to New York. The Toronto-New York leg took place more than 72 hours after my PCR test but the regulations allowed for my entry into the U.S. because the Vancouver-Toronto flight departed within the 72-hour timeline.

The tests are not cheap. In Vancouver, the PCR test cost $239 CAD and in New York the charge was $189 USD at the clinics I chose. On October 25, Air Canada announced that it will provide PCR/molecular test kits for $149 (and antigen kits for $79) that its travellers can use when returning to the country. The kits meet with Health Canada standards. The limited quantity of kits will be prioritized for the airline’s loyalty club (Aeroplan) members.

Something to consider if your travel plans are flexible is the push by the tourism industry to remove the PCR test requirement altogether. Countries such as Germany don’t require their returning residents to have a negative PCR test. Instead, they’ve asked them to monitor for symptoms and get tested if they have any. It may take some time, but it’s likely Canada will repeal the PCR test mandate should COVID-19 hospitalization rates prove manageable during winter.

Travel Insurance and Quarantine Preparedness

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Perhaps getting prepared in case he learned he would have to quarantine, Kal Suurkask of Victoria, British Columbia grabs all the beer he can at McSorley’s Ale House — the oldest Irish pub in New York City. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

You never want to contemplate the bad things that could happen while you’re about to head on the road. But more than ever it’s crucial to have travel insurance because if you test positive for COVID-19 — even if the symptoms are mild, or absent altogether — you will need to quarantine seven days or until you receive a negative test. Each negative test adds up, so does the additional hotel nights, and in-room meals. 

The cost of the tests and the risk of a positive test are certain to keep a lot of Canadians within their own border for now. That’s not a bad idea. Among attendees at the conference I participated in, numerous tested positive for COVID-19 either in New York or shortly after they returned to their home countries. So travel exuberantly, but mindfully and with caution.

Apps Are Everything

Be sure to download the ArriveCAN mobile app so you can upload necessary information that helps authorities pre-verify your vaccine status and PCR test results. The app is for passengers flying into Canada, whether they are returning Canadians or visitors to the country. Credit to the app developers and the government agency that procured the software. Its interface is user-friendly, speedy, and easy to understand. 

Procedural Changes at the Airport

For those of us who carry a Nexus pass, pack light, keep our boarding passes on our phones, and take pleasure in zipping through the airport to our departure gate, the pandemic protocols have hauled us back into procedural gridlock. You will need to have your PCR test manually checked by an airline clerk before heading to the security gate and, of course, starting on November 1 only double-vaccinated passengers will be allowed to legally board an airplane in Canada. And they will need to wear masks throughout their journeys on most airlines.

Masks and Vaccine Checks in New York

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Without the usual number of travellers, Times Square is far less crowded at night. But as travel restrictions ease, Canadians and other nationalities are expected to help return nightlife to its pre-pandemic levels in the coming months. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

After all those checks and double-checks, you’ve made it to New York — whew! 

Now get ready for what changes have been implemented as the city of 8 million people works its way through the pandemic. The good news is your physical card showing your vaccine record will be good enough for entry into museums, theatres, and restaurants. The bad news is if you have downloaded a QR code issued by a Canadian provincial (or federal) agency that links to a verification of your vaccination status, scanners in the U.S. are not likely to be able to read it. So be sure to have a hard copy of your record ready to show.

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Venerable Terra Blues is nearly empty on a weeknight as Vacay.ca Editor Adrian Brijbassi watches Jake Walker perform in the Greenwich Village music venue. (Vacay.ca photo)

Broadway has a strict vaccine-passport policy and mask mandate, with security checks at the many theatres in and around Times Square. Masks can be removed at other venues, including the live music clubs. Seeing musicians at Terra Blues on Bleecker Street was a joy — a throwback not only to 2019, when I last visited the nightlife spot known for attracting top-notch talent, but to my youth as well. It was an invigorating experience that made me hopeful the worst of the COVID-19 crisis is finally behind us. Whether it is remains to be seen. But one thing from my trip is certain — sitting around listening to the blues sure beats singing it for 18 months.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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