Surviving and Recovering During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Edmond Gagnon

During our last trip to Italy, Cathryn and I booked a food tour during our stay in Venice. It was an amazing experience made possible by the tour operators, Adam and Maya, who were American Expats we became friends with. They moved from California to Venice to start a new business and live abroad. By staying in touch with this couple, I learned first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged their city and country. In a letter from Adam, he told us about their experience:

A Letter from Adam and Maya from Venice Bites Food Tours

Maya & Adam Venice Bites Food Tours“Beginning with the New Year in 2020, we were full of hope and excitement because our company, Venice Bites Food Tours, had just been recommended in the 16th edition of the Rick Steves Venice Guide Book.  We knew we had reached the pinnacle — receiving a Rick Steves recommendation is akin to winning an Oscar award for ‘best food tour’.

A Rocky Start Before the Pandemic

We had a tough end-of-season in 2019, because Venice experienced the second-worst flooding event in recorded history during early November. Tourists canceled their holiday plans to Venice out of fear that the city was completely underwater. Most businesses reopened by the end of the first week, but US news outlets reported that Venice looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we were forced to close for the rest of the season.

Come February of 2020, it appeared that Venice was bouncing back. Carnevale had arrived, and hotels, while not full by normal standards, were still booked with tourists and residents alike, enjoying and participating in the annual celebrations. Things were looking up.  

But then we started getting reports about a virus that was already in full swing in China, and how it had found its way to northern Italy. The City of Venice made the difficult decision to close down the rest of Carnevale on February 23rd, and canceled all festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday, two days later.

At first, the government defined specific areas in northern Italy as “red zones”;  town officials closed off a catchment area of around 50,000 people. Then, within days, the red zone areas were widened. Soon, Venice was quarantined from the world.

The Pandemic News Worsens

Every day we would wake up to new news and new restrictions on our movement within Italy, our province, and the city itself. Venice and the Veneto, along with the neighboring Lombardy region, became a cautionary tale. People around the world watched as things became worse and worse here, with so many cases and deaths. The numbers seemed to grow exponentially with each passing day, as did our sense of dread and fear.

The Italian government, both city and regional, did their best to contain the situation in the midst of the pandemic. Restaurants and bars could be opened but had to close at 6:00 pm. They told them that they must keep diners one meter apart. This meant they were only able to fill every other table. It was the death knell for our eateries. With the restrictions, they could see no way to stay open.

Finally, they put a stay-at-home order in place. Only essential workers could leave their home unless shopping for food and supplies or to visit a doctor or pharmacist.  If you find yourself outside your home, you must wear a mask and gloves. You must also carry a self-verification form stating your home address, where you are going, and a testament that you will return directly back home.  

Predicting the Future of Travel

Adam & MayaTravel experts issued a four-phase recovery chart that contains both optimistic and pessimistic views on how long it might take for tourism to recover. The phases are lockdown, easing, returning, and recovery.  Their estimate for how long the lockdown will be 2-4 months. We are currently in month two of lockdown.  

Experts estimate the easing phase to take 4-9 months, which begins right at the end of lockdown. Travel restrictions will begin to let up and gradually return to normal. If Lockdown is over in four months (say, the end of June on the pessimistic side), and the easing phase begins in early July, this phase could potentially last until the end of July, 2021.

The returning phase is when travel demand grows and the economy recovers. They estimated this phase to take another 6-12 months. So again, pessimistically, that’s another year of waiting. Experts project that travel demand will be 40-70% of the 2019 numbers. That takes us to the beginning of August, 2022 before we can expect to be ‘back to normal.’

Finally, in the recovery phase, travel demand will approach pre-COVID levels. Experts expect another 12-18 months of this phase, with a pessimistic end date of February 2024. That’s a very long time for people like us in the travel industry, who have no other means of income. After learning of these estimates, real fear set in. 

What Will Venice Look Like?

Empty Italy StreetsWe also have to wonder about Venice and what this city will look like throughout these phases. How many Venetian-owned-and-operated restaurants will make it? How many Venetians will stay in Venice, hoping to ride this out?

As far as coping, it has been incredibly stressful. Maya contracted pneumonia and Bell’s Palsy, and was admitted to the hospital on April 1st. They immediately tested her for the virus and quarantined her in the hospital for 48 hours. Thankfully, the test returned negative. She continues to battle the aftermath of pneumonia but recovered 95% of the way. To add to the stress of all of this, we feel constantly worried about our families and loved ones, especially our parents. We are 6,700 miles away, with a nine-hour time difference. 

We also feel immense pressure due to money. Since the November flood, we have given only a handful of tours. We have savings, but it’s a race against time trying to anticipate when our money will run out. At what point do we pull the trigger and execute our exit plan? It will come at great financial, emotional, and mental costs.

Facing ‘Recovery’ After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Maya in Hospital during the PandemicOur hopes were so high for 2020 and beyond. After the recommendation from Rick Steves, we thought we’d be able to grow our business, hire a few guides, and add more tours. Now, we are stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future, not knowing how this thing is going to play out. 

We will be home without work for at least twelve months and are coping in different ways. Those ways change daily. There are good days and bad. I do projects around the house and fetch groceries for seniors in our building. Maya is trying to learn guitar. These are small things that help keep our minds and hands busy.

We fear that the money will run out or that we won’t execute the correct plan at the right time because of the pandemic. We are in a vacuum and have no idea how long we will sit in it. Also, we worry for the rest of the world, as we know we are not alone in this fight.”

Wrap Up — The Exit Strategy

After reading this letter, I asked Adam if he could expand on their exit strategy.

“We still own rental property in California (my former home). We hope that the real estate market allows us to sell it at a profit if it comes to it. If we have to leave Venice, we’d use that profit to buy land in Ireland, where we’d begin the next chapter of our lives, and maybe start another business or two.” 

I’ve never met another couple with such resilience and an optimistic long-term game plan. They tackled all obstacles that life’s thrown at them. Cathryn and I wish them health and the best of luck. If you plan a trip to Italy in the near future, please check out ‘Venice Bites’. We, along with Rick Steves, highly recommend them as the best food tour in Venice.  

Edmond Gagnon is a storyteller, author of fiction novels and traveler. He resides in the City of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada with his wife Cathryn.