A masked passenger sits in front of an empty row of seats on an Alaska Airlines flight from Spokane to Sea-Tac Monday evening. (Julie Muhlstein)

A masked passenger sits in front of an empty row of seats on an Alaska Airlines flight from Spokane to Sea-Tac Monday evening. (Julie Muhlstein)

Flying to see family, it was a risk that seemed like a must

After eight months of not seeing my 98-year-old mom, a trip to my Spokane hometown was short and sweet.

On the way over, aboard an Alaska Airlines Embraer 175, I had a window seat and a stunning Cascades view. Coming back, it was a Boeing 737-900 and a seat on the aisle. Both ways, I had plenty of space, time to read, and not as much worry as I’d anticipated.

“Now sit back, relax and enjoy your flight,” said a flight attendant just before takeoff from Spokane Monday evening. Enjoy may have been too strong a word for air travel during a pandemic.

Still, I felt safety was top of mind for those in charge and for most passengers. From checking in at a kiosk at Sea-Tac — where the airline’s social-distancing graphic on the floor says “Mind Your Wingspan” — to screening by Transportation Security Administration officials, waiting in the gate areas at both airports, and for the duration of the flights, it was obvious that care was being taken.

With middle seats blocked, the number of passengers on flights limited due to the coronavirus, and a mask-wearing requirement, flying didn’t seem any less safe than, say, grocery shopping or getting a haircut. Most anywhere we go these days — if we go — there is some risk.

As we sneak up on the holidays, families are struggling with decisions over whether or not to travel, and how to see our loved ones. I decided, after more than eight months without seeing my 98-year-old mother, that I had to go.

Back on Aug. 4, I wrote about how I hadn’t seen my mom in person since early February, and I didn’t “know when that opportunity might come again.” Although I saw my father at his house over the summer, my mother’s Spokane care facility was locked down for a time after some staff and residents tested positive for COVID-19.

Last week, strict limits on visits there were lifted to the extent that I could finally go with my dad to see her.

We had lunch together Monday, the three of us, socially distanced in an inside space set aside for individual families. Our gathering was arranged by a social worker there, our food was brought to the table before we arrived, and a staff member ferried my mom in a wheelchair from her room — which we weren’t allowed to visit.

With temperatures in the 20s and my folks in their late 90s, getting together outside wasn’t advisable. No doubt, there will be some who’ll say that no visit is advisable or safe for any of us. Two days before that lunch, I turned 67. That puts me in the higher-risk demographic along with my parents.

My answer to the no-go camp is that I’ve been careful for months, working from home and only seeing my own children and grandchildren outside and in masks. After spending less than an hour with my very frail mother on Monday, in a place where more virus cases could arise at any time, I was reminded that we still don’t know when — or if — I’ll ever get that chance again.

Precious time has been lost since a happier day in early February. That day, my mother clearly knew I was her younger daughter, the middle sibling of three. This time, I wasn’t so sure. Our visit Monday was sweet, though, and all too short. She nibbled a sandwich and we marveled at the snowy scene out the window. Just days before Halloween, it looked like Christmastime.

Both Spokane and Snohomish counties are in Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start reopening plan, which allows for get-togethers with no more than five people outside your household per week. The state’s “Safer Gatherings” web page outlines ways to lower COVID risk by considering pre-event quarantines, limiting the number of guests, bringing your own food, spending time outdoors, wearing masks and avoiding close contact.

That’s the hard one, avoiding close contact. I live 300 miles away. Imagine not giving a goodbye hug to elderly parents — I tried not to.

Would I fly again? Visit again? Very carefully, yes and yes.

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

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