The New Costs of Not Traveling

I had planned to visit JupyterCon, the global conference about the projects I work on for a living, in Paris this past week. AWS was a key sponsor of JupyterCon 2023, and we made several big announcements at this conference, including the official debut of Jupyter AI, an open source project that my team has been building since late last year. My team’s talk about Jupyter AI attracted a big crowd to a big room. I also booked a short vacation in Brussels before the conference, to relax a bit and get used to the time change. About six hours before my departing flight last week, I tested positive for COVID-19 and had a 101.5°F (38.6°C) fever, and I chose to cancel everything.

My fever only lasted a few days, and I tested negative for COVID this past Monday and Wednesday. My cough and fatigue lasted a bit longer, though, and current protocols would have required me to mask up at all times while indoors — and I had planned to be indoors at the conference center all day long, for four days of my trip. I found no reasonable way to continue the trip as planned, so I instead spent a morning trying to cancel transportation (successfully), event tickets (ditto), and hotels (no luck). I also broke the news to my teammates, two of whom went to the conference, and to the many other open source Jupyter collaborators who I had hoped to meet for the first time after a year and a half of working together.

Especially on that chaotic day of travel cancellations, I was hurt more emotionally than physically. I had been looking forward for months to meeting one of my AWS teammates and dozens of Jupyter collaborators in person for the first time. The trip was going to offer a little vacation time, and the conference venue was in the 19th arrondissement in northeastern Paris, a part of the city I had never visited before. Instead, I found myself racked with guilt and self-blame for having been exposed to some variant of the virus that I wasn’t yet immune to, despite four vaccine shots and at least two prior infections. My teammates, friends, and family have been supportive and positive, and I’ve been recovering without major problems.

Before I cancelled everything, I consulted JupyterCon’s health and safety guidelines, which read, in part, “Individuals should not attend the event if they are COVID-positive, are exhibiting COVID symptoms (as defined by the CDC), or have been exposed, within 10 days prior to the event, to someone who was COVID-positive or showed COVID symptoms.” One of my first thoughts after testing positive, based on my experience going to Europe last year and facing no questions about COVID until I was about to re-enter the U.S., was that the E.U. would probably let me in this year despite my fever and my positive, undisclosed, COVID diagnosis. I might have even made it to the conference, feeling well enough to sit in a chair, talk about my projects, and so forth. Instead, I decided to follow the published guidelines and stay home. I didn’t want to be patient zero of JupyterCon 2023’s version of the infamous “con flu”. The U.S. public health emergency that precipitated a lot of those precautions ended on May 11, during JupyterCon. I wonder how future events, not just future JupyterCons, will adapt to countries where COVID-19 is no longer, officially, an emergency situation.

I still intend to stay home, whether by working from home or rescheduling or cancelling travel, when I’m not feeling well. This also means that I should be booking travel tickets and hotel rooms that are refundable, even if they cost more than the non-refundable rooms I’ve been booking for most of my life. The two hotels I booked for my Europe trip were both affiliated with the multinational Accor chain, and both of them declined my request for a refund, since I had chosen a rate that was prepaid and nonrefundable. (Googling “Accor COVID” turned up a few optimistic business news stories, but no recent anecdotes about sympathetic hotel managers.) Refund policies, credit policies, and travel insurance were all things that I largely ignored prior to COVID, but to me, they are important for any trip I book in the future.

Despite this bad experience, I am still planning to go to other events, including other indoor conferences and conventions, as long as I’m feeling healthy before I go. In addition, I plan to be cautious in the days or weeks before a major event, masking up indoors and avoiding riskier events. Having spent most of this decade sitting at home out of an abundance of caution, I don’t want to spend the rest of my existence in isolation. Here’s hoping I can stay healthy and enjoy the next big event.