COVID-19 Abroad: An American Gator in London

As I began the Fall 2020 semester at the University of Florida, I felt a strange combination of both nerves and excitement. Like many students, I had spent the past few months with my family in my hometown. This was a small sacrifice to make to keep everyone safe, but it was not the most enjoyable way to spend a summer break. As the fall semester began to creep up, I began to wonder how the university would handle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. I wondered if I should even go back to campus, as it seemed almost inevitable that I could be exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Along with many other students, I decided that I should return to school and make the most of my time. I was trapped in a lease and also wanted a change of scenery for a new semester.

The regulations put in place by the university were a hot topic for many students. The school's reopening plan brought about the creation of HyFlex classrooms, which allowed for a small number of students to learn in the class while the majority watched over Zoom. None of this was ideal for students or administrators, which created controversy on both sides of the argument. There did not seem to be a right answer to how to handle this unusual semester. The first few weeks were difficult, as many students were overly eager to celebrate and hang out with missed classmates. In this social environment, it can be extremely impossible to not feel left out and alone to protect yourself and others.

Personally, the semester started at a low point for me, as I encountered a family emergency relatively early on. The feelings of isolation and sadness encouraged me to consider traveling to London to be with my family. They had been living abroad/across the Atlantic as I stayed in Florida to begin the semester. My father works in London, which encouraged my brother to begin school overseas as well. I had always planned to join them but was very discouraged by the idea of traveling during a pandemic. But, in early October, I decided that I would stay with my family in London for the rest of the semester.

This was a difficult decision, as I did not want to miss out on a whole semester in Gainesville, and I was very worried about flying to Europe with COVID-19 cases on the rise. Thankfully, I was able to fly on a very empty flight accompanied by multiple masks and shields. This was anxiety-inducing, but it was worth it to be with my family in a time of need. When I arrived, I had to isolate for 14 days in my family’s home.

Although the original dreams of my time in London had included finally seeing Harry Styles in concert and visiting all of the museums, I still was cautiously optimistic about my time there. I spent my flight planning the ways I could walk around London in the safest way possible. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy a few weeks of carefully controlled fun before the country entered its second lockdown.

The city was carefully monitored through the government’s screening app, which allowed you to scan a location when you passed it. When you entered a store or a restaurant, you were often screened briefly and asked to scan the app. The three-tier system was created on October 12, which created many more regulations for what was open or closed in the city.

My time soon became a process of finding a fine line between wanting to enjoy myself and wanting to be as safe as possible. I was able to go to the Tate Museum one day, which was thrilling even though some of the exhibitions were closed down. Many restaurants shut their doors because they could not afford to stay open just for delivery.

This all changed when the second UK lockdown began in early November. It lasted four weeks in an effort to slow down the spread. Unfortunately, the new variant became extremely prominent right around the holidays, which caused all holiday activities to be canceled. It seemed like everything I wanted to do in the UK I could have done in Florida. These new regulations did not seem to be working, as cases continuously rose. After receiving a negative test, I was able to fly home to Gainesville and begin my next semester.

My time in London was a bit of a shock to me, as they have many more regulations put in place to keep people as safe as possible. Now that I am back in Gainesville for the spring, I find myself comparing the handling of COVID-19 between here and abroad. I feel like my chances of getting sick are higher here, as it seems difficult to control a large group of young people. Also, people were more likely to correctly wear their masks in London compared with the crowds in Florida.

Overall, I am glad I was able to enjoy a few months overseas, even if I spent the majority of my time in lockdown. It is painfully clear to everyone that we have to create new expectations for the world if we want to protect our community. Although I will not be flying anywhere soon, I still valued the time I got to spend with my family in a new, changed world.