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Ben King is a WorldTour racer for NTT Pro Cycling, and a multi-time grand tour stage winner.
After three weeks of quarantine in Italy, I am back in America.
Before you call me irresponsible for travelling internationally during this crisis, trust that we took this decision very seriously and had good reason. Although we are healthy, we are still quarantining ourselves to avoid ANY risk. If you still feel our decision was irresponsible then you’re probably doing things right and this post is not addressed to you. However, I feel obligated to share my experience in hopes that it can make a difference.
As a professional cyclist I base in Tuscany, Italy during the cycling season. I was travelling to races at the beginning of the pandemic as the situation escalated in China. All of my races have been cancelled or postponed until the situation is under control. I observed the same stages of reaction in a diverse range of cultures and admit that I was not immune to all of them. I hope my hindsight provides you with some foresight to make good choices.
Stage 1: Downplaying
"This is China’s problem (now Italy). It’s not here. It’s fine. Lol, look at that guy. He’s not even Asian and he’s wearing a mask.”
Stage 2: Denial and lack of understanding
“I’m young and healthy. It’s just like a cold. Everyone is overreacting!”
Stage 3: Inconvenienced
“I can’t believe I can’t go out for a beer. I guess I’ll hang out with my healthy friends and go buy ALL the toilet paper before anyone else gets to it.”
Stage 4: Peer pressure, working from home or laid off, and nervous
“This is getting real. I’m not afraid to catch it but I don’t want to transmit it. I’m working from home but I’ll be back to work in a month. Poor Italians. I can’t imagine...I’ll practice social distancing but still meet my friends outdoors. I hope my parents don’t catch this.”
Stage 5: Government enforced quarantine
“I wish I’d known it would get this serious. I can’t believe people are still trying to go out. Stay away from me. I don’t want your COVID!”
Stage 6: One week into quarantine, fear and anger
“People I know have this disease. Elderly people they know are dying. The statistics are not numbers. They are people with loved ones. Hospitals and morgues are overcapacity. Health workers are overworked. The local economy is crashing. Stay away from me!"
From what I’ve seen in the countries being hit hardest attitudes have followed these trends. Here are the facts. Many COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. Each positive person infects three others. The USA has not carried out nearly as many tests as Italy (implying what I believe to be much higher numbers) and yet we have one of the highest rates of transmission.
We departed from the Pisa airport on Saturday morning. The airport was completely empty and shut down because our flight to Rome was the only flight that day. Rome was similar, eerily quiet and sterile. Every single person wore a mask and gloves. We had 40 people on our flight to JFK each seated in a row to themselves.
When we arrived in New York I got my first taste of the attitude that America is up against. I overheard a girl in her 20’s on our flight cursing at her sister because the family refused to send somebody to pick her up at the airport. I felt she was being irresponsible and selfish. Plus, who talks to their sister like that?
We won’t see our families for a minimum of two weeks. When we disembarked our temperature was taken. Passengers on our flight took off their masks just to clear customs and we proceeded to baggage claim. After three weeks in isolation, what I saw shocked me. Groups of Americans huddled together, brushing against other passengers to collect their bags. We stood back.
On our drive from New York to Virginia we saw signs encouraging people to wash their hands and advertising at home deliveries. Children played together in parks. Parking lots were packed full of people carrying on as though nothing had changed. For them, it hasn’t…yet.
I’m grateful to be home and closer to family, but honestly I feel more at risk in the USA than I did in Italy based on a mere 24 hours of observation. I'm still not afraid for myself but for the sake of those vulnerable to the virus. Please don’t take your freedom for granted. It's still your choice to take appropriate measures. I know you might think I am overreacting. One month ago, I would have too. But, we just experienced all of this. I don't want to preach or come across self-righteous, but I’ve seen where we are headed and it’s not pretty. It’s too late to stop it, but there’s still time to make a difference. This isn’t Italy’s problem. It’s ours too. It’s my problem and it’s yours.
With love, Ben King