March 11, 2020 is listed as the date when the impact of Covid-19 pandemic was recognized in the United States and lockdowns and closures took effect. On the next day, March 12, I had to leave the happiest country in the world — 26 hours after getting there.
Here’s what happened. Originally this entry was to be published as an article in a digital outlet, but the story was nixed. I decided to share it here.
In early March of last year, I was set to go to Finland on a five-day work trip to see why it was chosen as the happiness country in the world by The World Happiness Report in 2018, 2019, and 2020. As a travel writer, sent on assignment, I was to find out what seemingly made Finland’s people feel great while going about their daily lives. And maybe I could apply a tip or two to myself.
In the midst of this happiness, at this time, the global threat of COVID-19 grew as Europe had become the epicenter of the epidemic with more reported cases, and the World Health Organization characterized this coronavirus disease as a pandemic. In the U.S., the CDC reported cases of related illnesses climbing; in the second week of March, the number was over 2,000 and would still be rising.
The growing impact would come back to hit our trip starting with our arrival on March 11 after taking an overnight flight there the day before. Initially, we were set to take part in a new but now cancelled campaign: attending a Happiness School, where its planned focus was to show visitors like myself how to reconnect with nature and embrace Finnish habits, language and ways.
During four previously planned school days, I was to be taught about this Finnish sense of happiness through cuisine, physical outdoor activity, craftmaking and other objectives.
To be mindful of the health concerns caused by the outbreak, the Happiness School concept was postponed. Our trip was still on, but instead we’d be focusing on exploring why Finland is such a happy place.
Another writer from the States and I arrived in Helsinki on the morning of March 11, a day before the announcement of Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus.
We checked into Hotel St. George, a stylish luxury and wellness-focused property within a 19th-century building in the city center, next to Helsinki’s Old Church Park. At the time, other guests were staying there as well, as I saw them within its Wintergarten lounge bar and restaurant or dining in Restaurant Andrea or grabbing a pastry to go from its St. George Bakery & Bar.
We had an entire afternoon to explore Helsinki on our own before our scheduled dinner at Finnjävel, a restaurant exploring Finland’s northern food culture. The experimental menu consisted of traditional Finnish foods — from dairy to root vegetables, rye and wild berries, to meats and fish — across its regions that are commonly eaten but this night revisioned with a chef’s twist. We tasted Finnish spinach pancakes, rye bread, a crispy pork belly paired with boiled potatoes, and Pannukakku, an oven-baked pancake presented to us as a dessert.
The next day’s schedule was packed with activity. Our guided walking tour was to take us to the Amos Rex Art Museum, Kamppi Chapel, also known as “the Chapel of Silence,” and Oodi Central Library, among other attractions.
We’d also experience Finnish sauna culture — a bathing ritual noted for its cleansing and calming properties — at Uusi Sauna. Then we’d head to the southwest coast to the city of Turku the following day.
I explored the hotel and the neighborhood, stopping at a Burger King that unbeknownst to me had a sauna inside of it. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I don’t think I was wearing a mask; I can’t remember. I purchased my food order directly from workers with cash. No one seemed concerned about standing in close proximity. Since we were to see a lot in Helsinki the following day, I figured it would be best to take it easy on my first day. I assumed wrong.
Something Is Up
In the early Thursday morning hours, my jetlag had me catching a text from my sister sent late on Wednesday night. President Trump had just declared all transatlantic air travel to the United States from Europe suspended for 30 days, effective Friday, March 13.
“Figure out how to get home if you’re not leaving sooner,” she wrote.
I was set to fly home on Sunday, March 15. I googled the specifics to learn more.
The 30-day travel ban had involved 26 countries belonging to the Schengen border-free travel area such as Finland. However, it still permitted U.S. citizens back into the U.S. As much as I wanted to take that gamble and wait out my Sunday departure to experience the full trip, I envisioned a competitive race before the Friday close to midnight deadline.
I waited to hear from Halla Joonas, our Visit Finland contact. Halla would change our flights to Friday, March 13, which would have us missing the second leg of the trip but would at least give us another day in Helsinki.
On rainy and cold day two, being Thursday, March 12, we headed to the island of Uunisaari in southern Helsinki, to the restaurant and sauna of the same name. Warming up inside this building, I spotted urgent texts from Halla.
“PLEASE CALL BACK ASAP”
“Just got news and you would need to be on [the] 12:40 flight today”
“They might not be able to fly on Friday is what they are saying now from Finnair, please call back”
We called back, and it was clear. The other American journalist on the trip and I had to leave. It was about 10:30 in the morning at that point, and my 26-hour visit finished up with a hurried tram ride back to our hotel. I kept my eye on the tram windows to take in my last images of Helsinki on this route. At our stop, we said goodbye to two journalists from Spain who could continue on the trip.
With a stealth-like check of my hotel room, I returned to the lobby. Taru Itälinna, who coordinates publicity for My Helsinki and was taking us around on this day, checked us in for our Finnair flights by navigating through a Finnish language process on our phones.
Back To The Airport
Taru joined us on the cab ride to the airport and helped me check in my bag at the counter right as the cutoff point took effect. With her being there, and explaining to the counter employee what happened in Finnish, my bag made it through to JFK okay.
Taru was my voice of calm. I think if I was there on my own, I’d be a nervous wreck.
At the airport, our endless walk to our gate went from security, a DUTY free shop, passport control and a long winding route to our terminal. Our flight to JFK was fairly full; gate agents asked us if we had been to China before boarding. Hand sanitizer was present.
Nothing out of the ordinary occurred on the flight home, except for passengers wiping down tray tables and seat belt buckles. Once we landed at JFK, I expected questioning or something at U.S. customs. When I was at my passport control, an officer asked me how I was feeling and if I had visited China. His questioning was standard, but he had me get my bags searched after I told him I had brought back some Finnish berry smoothie powders with me.
When I got home, I went into lockdown and only stepped out being masked up for big shopping outings and needs such as an outdoor walk.
Two weeks later, on March 24, 2020, I emailed Halla to thank him again and see how things were going in Helsinki. Three days after I sent my message, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced restrictions imposed on domestic travel in and out of the Uusimaa region, an area in Southern Finland where Helsinki is located, to further prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Halla’s reply sounded hopeful. “The situation is still relatively good,” he wrote back then. People seemed calm, he said. Restaurants were selling only take-out food and drink; even alcohol, which was forbidden normally. They, bars and cafes were reported to be closed until May 31, 2020. Cultural venues, sports centers and municipalities such as day care services for the elderly were shut down as well.
Yet, Halla told me that keeping a social distance can be done easily, since Helsinki has many public outdoor spaces. As of this recap writing, the Finnish Government is extending the restrictions on entry into Finland until March 18, 2021. Restaurants are open but their stance may change.
Back home, I lost my day job but thankfully had some other means to make it through last year. Like everyone else, I Zoomed with others. And like others, I lost someone partly to Covid-19 and knew others who also lost their relatives and loved ones to the pandemic or had become ill and recovered. Now, I support travel locally as I am able to do so, from giving financially when I could to organizations helping with restaurant relief, to food banks and then later some to social change.
And soon, I hopefully will get vaccinated. Stay safe and be well.