Travel in the Time of COVID

Several months before our planned trip to France and Italy, I started checking the web sites of the US Embassies in Paris and Rome, thinking they would have the most up to date information for U.S. travelers.

Those sites (as well as the web site for Delta airlines) were clear that we would need to be vaccinated before we got on an international flight.  And up until a week or so before our late September departure date, Delta said we would need a negative test within 72 hours of departure as well as a signed statement that we had not been sick or exposed to COVID.  Since my sister, niece and I had all been vaccinated, we weren’t concerned about that requirement.

But from late spring through early summer there seemed to be constantly changing requirements for entering museums and restaurants in France and Italy as well as for train travel.  The information on the U.S. Embassy’s Rome web site said a vaccination card would suffice in Italy and that did turn out to be the case but other information about requirements was useless.

In that same time frame we started seeing articles that France and/or the EU were developing a procedure for a health card to use in France and possibly other countries.  We heaved a sigh of relief, when this article appeared in the NY Times: From The New York Times: Non-E.U. visitors to France can get a health pass to enter social venues. Tourists had been concerned that they would not be allowed in cafes, museums and sporting events if their foreign vaccination certificates were not recognized.

We were lucky that our cousin and his entire family were leaving for Paris and Normandy a few weeks before our trip and kept us apprised of the ever changing rules.  First, he and his family sent in applications for the ‘French Health Card’ using this web site.

Two family members got their health cards but then his son received a message that said: Since August 27, the requests for QR code are made online. For foreign nationals, except students:

So my sister, niece and I used that site to apply for our health cards.  We needed to first scan in and upload our passports, vaccination cards and airline tickets showing when we would enter and leave France.  I was concerned because at the time I applied I didn’t have my return ticket so I uploaded my train tickets showing when we were leaving Cannes.  Apparently that was enough for the French health agency issuing the cards.

When my cousin and his family arrived in  Paris, about half the group had their ‘cards’ and the rest had to take COVID tests on arrival and show negative results for restaurants and museums. He said that the rest of his group received their ‘cards’ while on the river cruise to Normandy and I’m not sure if they needed them at that point.

I received my health pass about a week before we left but my sister and niece did not receive theirs.  So our first day in Paris, they took the test at a tent near Notre Dame.  They received the results quickly but had a lot of problems downloading them to their phones.  The tests results are good for 72 hours so we all took the test in Cannes thinking we would need it there and when we arrived in La Sspezia.   I don’t recall any restaurant in Cannes asking to see our results and by the time we needed the results in Firenze, the test had expired.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Florence, that I realized that the ‘French health card’ was actually the EU Digital COVID Certificate, valid in all EU countries, and I didn’t need to take the COVID test in Cannes. It was at that point that my niece realized she had received the certificate for my sister but not one for herself, because the ‘passe-sanitaire etrangers’ entity could not open the scanned in copy of her vaccination card.  Thankfully all the restaurants in Firenze accepted her vaccination card.  I was thrilled that I had the EU Digital COVID Certificate since every museum and almost every restaurant in Italy required it.

In addition we all wasted time applying for the EU Digital Passenger Locator which the US Embassy in Rome said we would need for Italy.  Nope.  No one ever asked for it.

Masked and Vaxxed

I don’t know about other airlines but Delta requires passengers on all flights, domestic and international, to wear masks.  You can, of course, take off your masks for meals and drinks but on a long flight, it can definitely get tiresome.  Luckily both my international flights were only half to two thirds full, so the food and drink carts came around fairly often, giving us a break.

We had to wear masks in the Paris museums and also had to wear masks on all trains in France and Italy.  By the time I took my last train trip from Naples to Firenze, I have to say I was glad to be done with trains.

I also had to wear a mask in all the museums I visited in Italy and while waiting to be seated in most restaurants.  I noticed that in Firenze the majority of people wore masks outdoors.  While I wasn’t surprised to see masks being worn at the Christmas market, it seemed a little odd in processions or in the Boboli Gardens.

There seemed to be far  fewer people wearing masks outdoors in Rome and Naples. I don’t know if that’s the culture of southern Italy or in the case of Rome, larger outdoor spaces.

My language school in Montepulciano required masks which made conversation quite difficult.  Istituto Michelangelo was fairly casual about masks and it seemed like only a few teachers wore them.  That may be why half the school had colds.

Preparing to Return to the States

Since there were ‘testing tents’ all over Paris and Cannes, I assumed that we would be able to walk into a pharmacy (farmacia) in Firenze to get the rapid results tests prior to departure.  Nope.  We arrived in Firenze on a Friday and luckily my niece asked the staff at our hotel where to get one and was told she needed an appointment.  The hotel staff was able to get her an appointment for the next day, Saturday, at Farmacia Selvia. I happened know that particular farmacia because it is close to the language school I’ve attended and it’s easy to find.

But the process is Cirque du Soleil.  You have to take your passport into the pharmacy, fill out paper work, go outside, stand in line for the test, then find some place to wait for 30 minutes while they process the test and print out the results.

When my sister returned to Firenze prior to her departure, the only place she could get an appointment within the 72 hour window before her flight was at some type of health care facility on the other side of the main train station.

Since I was in Firenze for about a month prior to heading back to the states, I didn’t have any time constraints in terms of getting an appointment, or so I thought.  About 10 days before my flight, I walked into Farmacia Selvia and made an appointment for the following Tuesday.  I had intended to make it for Wednesday but the pharmacy is closed that day.

Luckily for me my niece was staying on top of the ever changing requirements and when the omicron variant hit, she texted saying ‘you may need to change your appointment, CDC is considering making the test window 24 hours.’  Then the Friday a week before my flight she texted saying ‘change your appointment; the window is now 24 hours.’

So I hustled from the Uffizi Galleries to the farmacia and changed my appointment from Tuesday to Thursday.  Even though I was fairly sure I hadn’t been exposed, that was a nerve wracking few hours, getting the test, and waiting for results.

And if I had depended on Delta Airlines, I probably wouldn’t have received the information in time.  I didn’t get an email from them concerning the requirements until about 48 hours before my flight.  So I would have had to pay for a second test, assuming I could have made another appointment.




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