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Mix Blog Live: Business as Unusual

Steve La Cerra jumped on a plane last week, headed for Pittsburgh on his first fly-date since the shutdown in March. The airports, he found, ended up being perhaps the oddest part of the weekend.

Last week I did my first fly date in the COVID era—only the second show since being shut down in March. Fortunately, the panic I experienced over boarding a plane came earlier in the week and passed before I could seriously contemplate chickening out. Also fortunate was the fact that it was a short flight: New York City to Pittsburgh, which on paper runs 1 hour and 48 minutes, but in reality is more like 30 minutes up and 30 minutes down.

It was apparent several weeks ago that this would not be a ‘business as usual’ trip. Choosing flights with our travel agent was slim pickins due to a serious reduction in scheduled service. The nonstop NYC-to-Pittsburgh route isn’t as well populated as, say, NYC-Chicago (which normally runs pretty much every hour from early morning until well into the late evening, in both directions), but I figured there’d be at least a few options in each direction. Wrong.

There was one morning nonstop from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh departing at 9:29 AM (how civil!), and two nonstops for the return: one departing PIT at 7:10 AM, the other departing at 5:00 PM. This reminded me of the service typically offered at smaller, regional airports where there are two flights in and two flights out per day: one early and one late in each direction. Not a group to hang around any longer than necessary, we chose the 7:10 AM flight for the return home—which meant a 4:15 AM lobby call. That’s business as usual.

Some aspects of the trip were very Twilight Zone. When I arrived at LaGuardia Terminal D, the curb was a ghost town. Absent were all of the skycaps who regularly help us with our gear; they represent only a portion of the 1,500 contracted airline workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports who have been laid off since March. Other furloughed workers include wheelchair agents and baggage handlers.

I snooped around inside the terminal to see if there was anyone to help us with the bags, but such was not the case so we opted to “rent” a bunch of luggage carts (6 bucks each, really?). Taking a cue from my Aunt Loll, I had with me a plastic baggie packed with disinfectant wipes at the ready to obliterate any cooties that might be lingering on the handles of said carts (which probably had been sitting idle all week).

There was a brief moment when I wondered what I was supposed to do next, and then auto-pilot kicked in… “Ah, yes, let the cartage company know that my crew and I are at the curb waiting for them to drop our gear, and then collect everyone’s IDs…” I could count on one hand the number of people at the check-in area, which sometimes happens when we’re leaving a small airport at 4:30 AM, but never at LGA.

Check-in went fine, and about an hour later we learned that our flight was delayed (more business as usual; what, was there heavy air traffic?). Nothing like a little bit of stress piled upon the fact that venue doors would be at 5:00 PM, and we were aiming to do a quick soundcheck prior to handing the deck over to the support acts. Oh, well.

Not surprising, the plane was pretty darn clean. Upon boarding, the masked flight attendants offered alcohol wipes (which I gladly accepted), but I opted to use my baggie of cootie-killing disinfectant wipes to wipe down the seat, armrests, seat belt and anything or anyone else in sight. As for the tray table (always a petri dish of activity), I left it closed and wiped the portion that faced outward. All of the passengers that I saw had on masks (some also wore shields), and there were no brawls over people refusing to do so. It was also apparent that some of the seats had been blocked in an effort to create social distancing.

The show was outdoors at the Vinoski Winery (Belle Vernon, Pa.), and props to the promoter and winery personnel for taking good care of us. It was an outdoor show—which is always fun when the showtime temperature is 50 degrees. Not. I froze my butt off.

Temperature at showtime was a balmy 50 degrees. Photo by Steve La Cerra.

The stage was at the bottom of a natural amphitheater and the audience was invited to bring their own chairs and blankets for the lawn. Lucky for me, they stayed well away from front of house, and it appeared that they mostly stayed away from each other, as well. Normally, I’d walk around the venue to check the mix (especially at the front of the stage), but there was no way I was leaving the safe isolation of my sonic sanctuary.

Read more Mix Blog Live: Surviving Sturgis.

I’m happy to say that the gig went well. Backstage was restricted to working personnel only (no guests), as was the dressing room area. The venue provided a large, private dressing room area so that my band and crew weren’t crowded, and meals were distributed in containers with individual portions.

A sleepless night led to a 3:30 AM alarm for that 4:15 lobby call. I’m happy to say that the drivers and transportation company observed the necessary Covid-related precautions. I noticed one or two disheartening things at PIT. First, the TSA screening area was disgusting. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since 2015, let alone in the past six months. Second, I was unpleasantly surprised at how few hand sanitizer dispensers at the airport actually worked. We’re hearing all this BS from airlines and airport officials about how safe and clean they’re keeping us, but they can’t keep the sanitizer dispensers full? That’s unacceptable.

Pittsburgh airport at around 6:00 AM, October 4, 2020. Virtually empty. Photo by Steve La Cerra.

It does, however, drive home an age-old concept: rely upon yourself to bring what you need. TSA now allows up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer to be carried onboard per person (but you still can’t carry a bottle of water). Me? I’ll be carrying the sanitizer and a baggie full of cootie killer wipes.