Canadians appear eager to take off for sun destinations despite ongoing COVID-19 challenges


Michel Dubois has packed his bags, even though his planned trip to Cuba is still more than two months away.

That’s because the retired TV cameraman and editor from Saint-Jérome, Que., is eager for a break from the monotony of pandemic life.

“After a year and a half of sitting in front of my TV and computer, it’s time to move on,” said Dubois, 70, who plans to do some scuba diving and enjoy the sun.

Trips like the one Dubois has booked are giving airlines and tour operators something to look forward to as well — seemingly better business prospects after months of severely hampered operations due to pandemic-related border closures and travel restrictions.

Some key travel players are reporting increased demand for bookings to sun destinations, despite the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic that has yet to end inside or outside Canada’s borders.

Better days ahead?

The onset of the pandemic prompted governments — including Canada’s — to urge people to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus and its variants.

It’s a stance Ottawa still holds, even though the government recently loosened restrictions for incoming travellers who are vaccinated.

Tourists relax on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, last month. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

“We continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada,” Global Affairs Canada said in an email on Friday, noting that this applies to all countries around the globe.

The department also pointed to practical concerns for those who choose to go abroad.

“Additional travel restrictions can be imposed suddenly. Airlines can suspend or reduce flights without notice. Travel plans may be severely disrupted, making it difficult to return home.”

WATCH | Incoming travellers and Canada’s 4th COVID-19 wave:

Canada walks fine line as border reopens during fourth wave

As Canada prepares to allow non-essential travel from nearly anywhere in the world, the country walks a fine line between needing to reopen and fears over the fourth wave of COVID-19. 2:00

Indeed, COVID-19 travel restrictions vary from country to country, with vaccine passports gaining traction with some governments. Prior to the current federal election campaign, Ottawa had announced plans to develop such documentation for international travel.

Then and now

Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says that while the government actively discouraged travel last winter, that didn’t deter all people from going abroad — such as snowbirds who went to Florida.

With the progress on vaccination that has been made, Chandra said he believes Ottawa’s stance on leisure travel may have to shift.

“I don’t think it would be reasonable for the government to go a second winter season saying: ‘Don’t travel,'” Chandra said in an interview.

A mask-wearing pilot at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in March 2020, the same month the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Many border closures and travel restrictions were soon put into effect in countries around the world. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Jörg Fritz, an associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department at Montreal’s McGill University, says that as travel picks up, Canada will have to keep a close eye on what strains of the virus are circulating here and around the globe.

“We simply need to face that this virus will not go away that quickly,” he said.

“The danger that new variants arise that might escape vaccine-induced immunity is still there and will be there for quite a while.”

It’s also key for Canada to continue increasing its vaccination rate and to ensure that children are protected as soon as that is possible, Fritz said.

A desire to get away

Air Canada says the upcoming fall and winter looks promising for travel to sun destinations.

“When looking to the sun market, we are very optimistic about our recovery,” airline spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in a recent email, adding that “we are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels.”

Sunwing Travel Group says it’s seeing ‘encouraging demand’ for sun-destination bookings compared with last fall. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, Sunwing Travel Group reports seeing “encouraging demand” compared with last fall, which spokesperson Melanie Anne Filipp says shows Canadians are growing more confident about travelling again.

“The rise in vaccinations across the country and easing border measures have without a doubt contributed to Canadians’ increasing interest in travel to sun destinations,” said Filipp, who noted that business remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Montreal-based Air Transat is currently flying passengers to a mix of domestic and international locations. Some of its sun destinations include Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico.

“We confirm that demand is doing well, and we clearly feel that the urge to travel is back,” Air Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana said via email.

“However, because of the uncertainty that still exists when traveling abroad, bookings are being made more last minute than before the pandemic.”

Being able to back out

A last-minute travel buy was not the story for Dubois, the retired TV cameraman, who booked his own trip back in January.

But he also bought a ticket that will allow him to cancel his plans up to 24 hours before departure, with a full refund.

Tourists take a break at a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, in August 2019. Seven months later, the global pandemic was declared, bringing an end to most leisure travel throughout the world. (Fernando Medina/Reuters)

On prior trips, he hadn’t tended to pencil in the possibility of needing to cancel — but that was before COVID-19.

“Before now, no,” said Dubois, who worked for both CBC and Radio-Canada during his career. “Now, definitely.”

The University of Toronto’s Chandra says the more flexible arrangements being offered by airlines reflects the fact that some customers won’t be willing to book expensive tickets if there’s a chance they will lose their money.

Rolling out the welcome mat

Dubois is heading to Cuba at the end of November, and by that time, travel restrictions will have been eased.

The Cuban Tourism Ministry recently announced that as of Nov. 15, Canadians with proof of vaccination won’t have to take a test before heading to the country. They’ll also be able to travel across the island.

Vacationers take to the water at a Club Med resort in the Dominican Republic before the pandemic. With the progress on vaccination that has been made, one expert says he believes Ottawa’s restrictive stance on leisure travel may have to shift. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Sunwing’s Filipp said that “numerous sun destinations are already open for travel,” and like Cuba, other destinations are expected to ease restrictions of their own as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases decline.

Chandra says he’s doubtful that differing rules between sun destinations will have much of an effect on travel patterns.

That’s because a lot of sun seekers — and snowbirds in particular — are likely to “stick to their choices” when it comes to their desired winter getaways. “They’re not going to go other places,” he said.

They’re also unlikely to go to other regions because they head south to take advantage of the better weather, he said.



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After being banned on Alaska Airlines, state senator excused for travel challenges


After being suspended earlier this year from flying on Alaska Airlines, state lawmaker Lora Reinbold said she’s now having troubles reaching the capital to vote. 

Last week the Republican senator requested an excusal from the state Senate through Jan. 15, citing the challenges of traveling to Juneau from Anchorage. Having been flying Delta, she said she was unaware of any other airline flying to the state capital during that period.

Juneau is accessible by air or water, including via the state-run ferry system.

“Maybe it’s time to proceed on moving the legislature to the road system,” Reinbold wrote on Facebook Thursday. “If the only airline, that has flights during session to Juneau, can unconstitutionally impede a legislator’s ability to get to the Capital in a safe and timely fashion, it could undermine our representative republic.”

Lawmakers are in their third special session of the year, which is due to end Tuesday unless legislators finish earlier. It’s not clear if any other special sessions will be held before the next regular session begins in January.

Her excusal request was accepted by the Republican-led Senate without any objections.

Back in April, Alaska Airlines banned Reinbold from their flights for refusing to follow mask requirements. 

Reinbold had been recorded in Juneau International Airport arguing with Alaska Airlines staff about mask policies. A video posted to social media appears to show airline staff telling Reinbold her mask must cover her nose and mouth.

Alaska Airlines in April said in a statement at the time that Reinbold was not allowed to fly with the carrier “for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy.” 

Los Angeles Exteriors And Landmarks - 2020

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Alaska Airlines Airbus A321-253N takes off at Los Angeles international Airport on September 15, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

RELATED: Alaska Airlines says state senator banned for refusing to follow face mask requirements

Delta Air Lines provides seasonal service to and from Juneau, which the company said began in late May this year and ended this weekend.

Additionally, Reinbold said the ferry schedule is limited and she doesn’t want to hold up legislative proceedings if she cannot reach Juneau “in a timely fashion.”

Following her suspension in April, Reinbold drove through part of Canada and took a ferry to reach the capital, a two-day trip.

If there is another special session, Reinbold, who is from Eagle River, said that session should be held in a community that is connected to Alaska’s main road system. Eagle River is part of the Municipality of Anchorage.

Reinbold has been critical of masking rules, including at the state Capitol.

“If accommodations can be made for efficient and safe transportation opportunities, I plan to be in Juneau for special session for significant votes,” she said.

On Thursday, airline spokesperson Tim Thompson told the Associated Press in an email that Reinbold’s case “was reviewed earlier this year and she was notified of the outcome. Nothing has changed with her status from earlier this year.”

Reinbold in response to emailed questions told the Associated Press that she had been in compliance and called the ban political.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.



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After being banned on Alaska Airlines, state senator excused for travel challenges


After being suspended earlier this year from flying on Alaska Airlines, state lawmaker Lora Reinbold said she’s now having troubles reaching the capital to vote. 

Last week the Republican senator requested an excusal from the state Senate through Jan. 15, citing the challenges of traveling to Juneau from Anchorage. Having been flying Delta, she said she was unaware of any other airline flying to the state capital during that period.

Juneau is accessible by air or water, including via the state-run ferry system.

“Maybe it’s time to proceed on moving the legislature to the road system,” Reinbold wrote on Facebook Thursday. “If the only airline, that has flights during session to Juneau, can unconstitutionally impede a legislator’s ability to get to the Capital in a safe and timely fashion, it could undermine our representative republic.”

Lawmakers are in their third special session of the year, which is due to end Tuesday unless legislators finish earlier. It’s not clear if any other special sessions will be held before the next regular session begins in January.

Her excusal request was accepted by the Republican-led Senate without any objections.

Back in April, Alaska Airlines banned Reinbold from their flights for refusing to follow mask requirements. 

Reinbold had been recorded in Juneau International Airport arguing with Alaska Airlines staff about mask policies. A video posted to social media appears to show airline staff telling Reinbold her mask must cover her nose and mouth.

Alaska Airlines in April said in a statement at the time that Reinbold was not allowed to fly with the carrier “for her continued refusal to comply with employee instruction regarding the current mask policy.” 

Los Angeles Exteriors And Landmarks - 2020

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Alaska Airlines Airbus A321-253N takes off at Los Angeles international Airport on September 15, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

RELATED: Alaska Airlines says state senator banned for refusing to follow face mask requirements

Delta Air Lines provides seasonal service to and from Juneau, which the company said began in late May this year and ended this weekend.

Additionally, Reinbold said the ferry schedule is limited and she doesn’t want to hold up legislative proceedings if she cannot reach Juneau “in a timely fashion.”

Following her suspension in April, Reinbold drove through part of Canada and took a ferry to reach the capital, a two-day trip.

If there is another special session, Reinbold, who is from Eagle River, said that session should be held in a community that is connected to Alaska’s main road system. Eagle River is part of the Municipality of Anchorage.

Reinbold has been critical of masking rules, including at the state Capitol.

“If accommodations can be made for efficient and safe transportation opportunities, I plan to be in Juneau for special session for significant votes,” she said.

On Thursday, airline spokesperson Tim Thompson told the Associated Press in an email that Reinbold’s case “was reviewed earlier this year and she was notified of the outcome. Nothing has changed with her status from earlier this year.”

Reinbold in response to emailed questions told the Associated Press that she had been in compliance and called the ban political.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.



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Travelport Launches Global Accelerator to Tackle Travel Retailing Challenges


Travelport is aiming to solve some of the biggest challenges in travel retailing. The new global accelerator program in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) will start off by tackling digital marketing solutions that personalize targeted offers to customers using AI and machine learning.

“No single person or business has the solution to all of travel’s retailing challenges,” said Tom Kershaw, chief product and technology officer at Travelport. “The most effective way to drive innovation, especially at pace, is to unite bright minds from diverse backgrounds and geographic locations and focus their energy on solving a specific problem. That’s precisely what Travelport Accelerator will do. We look forward to working with companies across the world, both large and small, to drive the modernization of travel retailing for the benefit of the entire travel ecosystem.”

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For this first challenge, selected startups will be given the chance to receive up to $100,000 in AWS Activate credit, and applications are currently open.

This will not be the only challenge offered by Travelport. Travelport Accelerator will see tech startups and innovators looking to enter the travel space take aim at a series of different travel retailing challenges, such as data protection, hyper-personalization and customer acquisition. Once a challenge is set, companies with relevant products and technology are invited to apply.

For each challenge, a cohort of as many as 10 companies will be selected to proceed. Companies are judged by panels made up of top industry members, including American Express Global Business Travel, Priceline, Internova Travel Group, Direct Travel and Christopherson Business Travel. A group of three companies will move to the final round and will work to take on the challenge with Travelport and AWS.

“With millions of active customers, AWS enables organizations of every size, around the world, to innovate. Travelport Accelerator supports that effort by giving travel innovators the potential to pitch their technology to some of the most influential leaders in the global travel industry and to influence the future of travel retailing. We’re proud to collaborate with Travelport on this as we work together to optimize Travelport+ and create a simpler, smarter, and better future for travel retailing.”

The deadline to enter the first challenge, which will introduce cutting-edge digital marketing technology for travel companies, is midnight Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.

Jen Catto, Chief Marketing Officer, Travelport, said: “The sheer volume of channels that communicate messages to people today is breathtaking, as is the amount of content each pushes out. Our brains are therefore forced to prioritize the information they receive. If you’re not compelling enough, you’ll be at the back of the queue – forgotten, literally. To be heard, it’s now table stakes for digital marketing to be highly targeted and hyper-personalized. Historically, this has been a challenge for travel companies because selling travel is complex, access to travel data has been limited, pricing is real-time, demand trends evolve rapidly, and offers contain multiple products. Due to this, according to a recent study by Sojern, 84% of marketing professionals in the travel industry now see AI and machine learning for personalization of digital marketing as a high or very high priority. Challenges, however, are there to be overcome, and we believe this challenge can be solved by bringing together the right people and the right technology. We can’t wait to get started!”





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Airbus challenges Boeing cargo dominance with A350 freighter


PARIS, July 29 (Reuters) – Europe’s Airbus (AIR.PA) took aim at one of Boeing’s (BA.N) most profitable strongholds on Thursday with plans for a freighter version of its A350 passenger jet, gambling that a pandemic boom in Internet shopping will outlast the global health crisis.

Boeing has for years dominated the market for air freighters even as its European rival grabbed its crown as the world’s largest maker of passenger jets.

Airbus said its board had backed an A350 freighter to enter service in 2025 but did not immediately announce customers.

“We believe we have a very promising aircraft,” Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said after unveiling better-than- expected half-year results. read more

Plans to challenge Boeing’s control of the freight market, maintained for decades through its 767, 777 and 747 cargo jets, were first reported by Reuters in March. read more

The move is seen certain to trigger a response after Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun on Wednesday listed developments including “I hope in the relatively near term” a freighter version of the 777X.

The 777X is set to be the world’s largest twin-engined passenger jet but its development has been delayed by tightening safety certification standards and weak passenger demand.

The head of Qatar Airways told Reuters last month Boeing was already showing designs for a 777X freighter. read more

Airbus has for months been informally canvassing support for an A350 freighter in addition to the smaller A330 freighter, whose sales failed to keep pace with the 767 cargo workhorse.

FREIGHTER PREMIUM

Airbus hopes the arrival of the world’s first lightweight carbon-fibre freighter will tip the market in its favour as tougher emission standards, which are expected to limit deliveries of existing Boeing freighters, enter force in 2028.

Boeing is expected to argue that its larger 777X freighter will be more integrated with existing infrastructure.

Thursday’s announcement formally begins a race to sign up influential buyers ranging from express firms like FedEx (FDX.N) and UPS (UPS.N) to freight-conscious Asian airlines or dedicated cargo carriers led by Luxembourg’s Cargolux.

“We are closer every day, but we are not at the point where we can announce commercial transactions,” Faury said.

At stake is Boeing’s dominance of a lucrative but volatile corner of the jet market in which freighters can fetch higher prices than passenger equivalents, according to market sources.

New freighters could support depressed output of wide-bodied jets pending a pick-up in international passenger travel.

About half of global cargo by value travels by air, and in turn half of that usually goes in the belly of passenger planes.

During the pandemic, many airlines have been forced to park unused passenger jets, driving up demand for cargo space on dedicated freighters at a time when e-commerce has been a lifeline for many during COVID lockdowns.

Economists warn the trends could start to unravel as the pandemic eases, but Faury said he was not worried about missing a wave of anticipated cargo replacements later this decade.

Boeing last year predicted demand for 2,430 freighters over 20 years, including 930 purpose-built cargo planes and 1,500 converted from passenger airplanes.

Reporting by Tim Hepher; editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Carmel Crimmins

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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How Monarch Air Group Alleviated Travel Challenges during COVID-19


How Private Jet Charter Provider Offered Clients Support by Remaining Flexible, Transparent, and Leading by Example

The Fort Lauderdale private jet provider executed several actions to ease the passenger’s travel experience, from constant communication and openness, to ensuring the best practices were always met while operating through the uncertainties imposed by the pandemic.

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Providing Clients with Transparent Communication

Remaining flexible can also be applied to business strategy. Diversification is a key aspect for success in today’s industry considering the various moving parts in our global, hyperconnected, economy. Executive charter flights are only the tip of the iceberg for private aviation providers and, while this segment might be the main driver of revenue, there are some companies willing to offer a comprehensive set of services.

During COVID-19 Monarch Air Group performed repatriation flights for families stranded far from home after the pandemic struck while on vacation, while also executing cargo flights for the transport of diverse goods and medical supplies. Operating cargo charters is not new for the company, as they have played a key role in humanitarian missions during natural disasters in the past, especially during hurricanes affecting communities in Florida and the Caribbean.

Furthermore, with the rise of travel restrictions especially for commercial aviation, there were many travelers searching for options to continue with their business activities and jobs. The previous elevated the number of first-time passengers experiencing private aviation, a huge opportunity for private jet providers to build ties with a potential group of long-term clients.

“This opportunity comes with great responsibility considering new customers will be experiencing a service that has been adapted to the new reality. Managing expectations while maintaining high safety and service standards has been key for us while building a relationship with first-time travelers”, concluded David Gitman.

Establishing Best Practices and Leading by Example

In a sense, Monarch Air Group has established, with responsible actions, that flying during COVID-19 just got easier. Tailoring its service to the needs and concerns of their customers, while constantly remaining vigilant to the best practices regarding travel during the outbreak is the flight path the company has taken to deliver a safer and unique private jet experience. COVID-19 will probably continue to evolve in all continents; acknowledging this reality and remaining flexible is paramount to maintain high levels of passenger confidence throughout 2021.

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Importance of Remaining Flexible

Travel is changing and those capable of acknowledging that as an opportunity will be better positioned to face the future. Fort Lauderdale-based private jet provider Monarch Air Group executed some actions to reduce their passenger’s uncertainty during unprecedented times while also capturing new markets during the pandemic.

Remaining flexible and open while operating under a pandemic is a key ingredient for success. When the global outbreak hit in late 2019 there was a lack of clear guidelines on how to sustain operational continuity while also maintaining a safe environment for employees and clients. While authorities issued best policies to perform business under the outbreak, these did not necessarily play a role in reducing anxiety and fear within the public, especially those in need of air transportation.

Private aviation operates in a safe environment, where passengers can control the travel process to a large extent. This segment has been in a prime position compared to its commercial counterpart due to exclusive boarding, less touchpoints in the overall process (thus fewer opportunities for contact with the virus) and a controlled atmosphere in the cabin, with passengers being able to choose who joins the trip.

Furthermore, due to the safety standards imposed by Monarch Air Group, the company has been an active player in providing a safe and reliable means of transportation for families reuniting during the holidays, especially the elderly, who opt for a controlled travel experience from start to finish, removed from the crowds of commercial aviation, and in constant communication with the company.

Honest communication can go a long way and therefore maintaining the flow of engagement with clients is paramount. Being able to perform that with candor and transparency, while also remaining honest in the sense that companies do not necessarily have all the answers, is the first step for providing a superior service. That is one of pillars in the mission of Monarch Air Group.

“Unprecedented times call for out of the box thinking and utmost transparency. We use the feedback from our clients, aligned with the best practices established by local and international authorities in the industry, to co-create value by delivering a service aimed at restoring passenger’s confidence while maintaining the highest levels of safety standards. We analyzed the concerns of our clients and materialized them in improvements for the overall travel experience. This openness will continue being an instrumental part of how we do business at Monarch Air Group”, explained Gitman.

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About Sponsored Content: This content was paid for by an advertiser. McClatchy’s newsroom and editorial staff were not involved in the creation of this content.





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America’s half a million Covid deaths a stark reminder of challenges for Biden | Joe Biden


Exactly one year after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the United States, Joe Biden was sworn in as president, inheriting the worst public health disaster since the flu pandemic of 1918. In the days that followed, Biden pledged a “full-scale, wartime” effort to combat the virus, even as he braced a disease-weary nation for its darkest chapter yet.

“Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” Biden said at the time, offering a dire forecast. The national death toll, he warned, could exceed half a million by the end of February.

As Biden predicted, just over a month into his tenure, the country has now hurtled past 500,000 total deaths from Covid-19, a grim reminder of the scale of the pandemic in America – and of the challenges he faces combatting a public health crisis his predecessor Donald Trump had wrongly claimed would simply disappear.

“It’s terrible,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN on Sunday. “It’s really horrible. It is something that is historic. It’s nothing like we’ve ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic.”

Against this bleak backdrop of half a million dead, Biden is racing to mobilize a national response to the pandemic and deliver on his promise for economic relief before voters’ inaugural goodwill wears off.

Public health experts and scientists have roundly welcomed the new administration’s sprawling coronavirus mission, but warn that significant obstacles remain. And though Biden has struggled to win over Republicans in Congress, polling suggests a strong majority of Americans approve of his handling of the pandemic so far.

“Results trump bipartisanship, by far,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Wisconsin, where Biden traveled on Tuesday to pitch his stimulus plan. “Ultimately he’s going to be judged by: how well and how quickly did he get people vaccinated? How well and how quickly did he get people back on their feet economically?”

At the moment, there is cause for hope. New daily coronavirus cases have plunged, and hospitalizations and deaths are down significantly, a trend experts expect will continue as high-risk populations are vaccinated.

Despite some early hiccups and delays, the administration’s national immunization campaign is accelerating. With vaccine production ramping up, Biden is on pace to meet his goal of inoculating 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office.

Last week, Biden declared the US would have enough doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to inoculate 300 million Americans “by the end of July”. Yet getting those shots into Americans’ arms, Biden said, poses the “most difficult operational challenges we’ve ever undertaken” and he cautioned the the timetable could change.

To supercharge vaccine distribution, the president is calling on Congress to pass a $1.9tn relief proposal that includes stimulus payments for American families, expanded unemployment benefits as well as funding to accelerate the immunization effort.

Republicans have attacked the rescue plan as too big and too progressive, arguing the lack of a bipartisan consensus undermines Biden’s appeals for unity. But Democrats, who hold slim majorities in both chambers of Congress, are pressing ahead without them, in part because many of its central provisions enjoy broad public approval – even among Republicans.

“Now is the time we should be spending,” Biden said, touting the plan’s popularity in Milwaukee last week. “Now is the time to go big.”

Using a strictly controlled parliamentary tactic known as reconciliation, a maneuver that allows the majority party to bypass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, Congressional Democrats are rushing to deliver the package before critical federal aid provisions run out next month.

Reconciliation hardly closes the door on bipartisanship, said Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota known for working across the aisle. The expedited process, she argued, is “completely appropriate” given the urgency and scale of the economic hardship still facing millions of American workers and families.

Nothing is stopping Republicans from voting for the legislation, she added, even predicting a few could change their minds after yet another painful unemployment report.

“It’s going to be very difficult for millionaires in the Senate, who have done just fine during the pandemic to say no to their constituents who are struggling,” she said.

As Congress pushes ahead with his stimulus package, Biden is working to harmonize the nation’s coronavirus response, establishing federal guidance for reopening businesses and schools while engaging with governors and pleading with the American people to do their part.

During the opening days of his administration, Biden signed a blitz of executive orders. He issued new mandates for mask-wearing on federal property, as well as interstate planes, trains and buses; invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up the manufacturing of vaccines, tests and protective equipment such as masks; imposed new restrictions on international travel to the United States; and rejoined the World Health Organization.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, praised the administration’s “holistic approach” to curtailing the virus. But as the rubber meets the road, Popescu said the administration faces challenges overcoming vaccine hesitancy and improving genetic sequencing to better identify mutations that could make the virus more infectious – or more deadly.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would spend $200m to track variants of the coronavirus. This comes as states begin to ease public health measures in response to falling case numbers. But experts warn that the US does not have enough control over the new strains of the virus and that reopening too quickly could thrust the country backward.

“It would be like Moses about a half a mile from the Red Sea, saying, let’s not try it,” said Dr Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “We’re almost there. We’ve almost reached this incredible medical miracle: getting immunized. Just be patient and continue to social distance.”

Making good on his promise to safely reopen “the majority of our schools” nationwide within the first 100 days of his presidency has been particularly thorny, amid resistance from teachers’ unions, pressure from parents and criticism from Republicans.

During the town hall last week, Biden clarified that the goal was return elementary and middle school children to classrooms five days a week by that deadline. That contradicted an earlier statement by Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, who said at least one day a week of in-person learning would satisfy the administrations initial pledge.

Republicans are seizing on the issue, battering Biden and Democrats for not moving more quickly to open schools in an attempt to win back women and suburban voters who fled the party under Trump.

The White House, noting that those decision are ultimately be made by local governments and individual school districts, has urged Congress to pass the rescue package, which includes billions of dollars to help schools reopen safely.

Still, there are pieces of the response that can’t be solved by legislation or executive action. Education and persuasion will be necessary to convince Americans to continue to follow public health guidelines and to get the vaccine, Markel said. Combating online misinformation about the virus and the vaccine as well as restoring trust in public health leaders and institutions after relentless attacks by Trump and his allies pose significant challenges.

Though Biden has not shied away from criticizing his predecessor’s management of the crisis, he has also acknowledged that how he handles the pandemic in the coming weeks and months will define his presidency.

During a tour a Pfizer vaccine manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this week, a double-masked Biden struck a note of cautious optimism while urging Americans to stay vigilant.

“I believe we’ll be approaching normalcy by the end of this year,” he said. “God willing, this Christmas will be different than last.”



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Online Travel Update: Tripadvisor introduces virtual voice tours for Amazon Alexa; Airbnb Experiences continues to face challenges; TripActions succeeds with fresh approach to travel management | Foster Garvey PC


As evidenced by our list of stories below, it was a relatively quiet week for online travel.

Tripadvisor Introduces Virtual Voice Tours for Amazon Alexa
(“Tripadvisor creates virtual destination tour via Amazon Alexa,” January 29, 2021 via Phocus Wire)
Working with tourism authorities in Abu Dhabi, last week, Tripadvisor launched what it claims to be the first virtual destination voice tour for Amazon Alexa. Users in the United Kingdom can summon the voice tour by asking their Alexa-enabled device “to explore Abu Dhabi.” The voice tour is part of a larger campaign between Abu Dhabi and the review/distribution platform and, according to Tripadvisor, the feature will be made to other destination partners.

‘Experiences’ Continues to Challenge Airbnb
(“Airbnb Experiences Is Still a Conundrum With Strategy Lapses,” January 28, 2021 via Skift Travel News) (subscription may be required)
Given the disastrous effects of the pandemic on activities and experiences this past year, it is not surprising that Airbnb Experiences is proving to be a challenge for the company. Industry observers suggest, however, that Airbnb’s challenges are more than pandemic related. Suspected problems include product offerings (local, curated experiences instead of tickets to popular destinations), supplier mix (small, local hosts instead of professional tour operators) and connectivity. As a newly minted public company, Airbnb will face increasing pressure to work out these challenges, which may require it to abandon some of its cultural foundations.

Travel and Expense Management Company TripActions Raises Another $155 Million
(“TripActions snags additional $155M, valuation now $5B,” January 21, 2021 via Phocus Wire)
Despite claims by legacy TMC (travel management company) American Express Global Travel that innovation and innovators in the TMC space had stalled in 2020, TripActions is set out to prove differently. Last week, TripActions announced the successful closing of a Series E investment round at a valuation of $5 billion. Notwithstanding the pandemic, 2020 was a good year for TripActions as it launched nearly 40 product enhancements and new capabilities. Corporate users now include Netflix, Wayfair and Accor. Co-founder and CEO Ariel Cohen describes his company’s approach to travel and expense management as the “modern” approach – which leverages cutting-edge technology to deliver superior customer service (while generating margins unavailable to the legacy “old model” travel management companies (American Express, BCD and CWT)). With the corporate travel segment turned on its head because of the pandemic (and the widely anticipated long-term shifts in how people work and travel for work), it will be interesting to see what the long-term effect these technology-driven platforms will have on travel management.


Other news:

What’s Next for Airline Distribution as IATA Pushes its Retailing Vision?
January 26, 2021 via Phocus Wire
Progress in the adoption of the New Distribution Capability (NDC) airline distribution standard is driving the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to lay out next steps. The organization says the NDC journey accelerated last year, despite the pandemic, with the 20 percent target for NDC bookings in the indirect channel hit around June, albeit for mostly domestic leisure bookings.



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Takeout challenges Bethesda-area restaurants face during the pandemic


Lamb chops and crabcakes are among the to-go items offered at Real Nutritious Food in Chevy Chase, D.C. Photo by Deb Lindsey

The last meal I ate inside a Bethesda restaurant was in early March 2020 at Cubano’s, which I wrote about in my most recent review as Bethesda Magazine’s restaurant critic. As COVID-19 and a stay-at-home order descended on us, I was fine, even happy, with cooking at home. I’m a former chef, and cooking for myself is something I rarely had the opportunity to do.

Through March, I was hesitant to order takeout because I wasn’t sure it was safe for my husband and me—we’re both in a high-risk category—or for the staff at the restaurant, but I wanted to help local businesses. When more information about the virus came to light and businesses put safety protocols in place (the CDC considers the risk of getting COVID-19 from eating or handling food and its packaging very low), I started ordering from sit-down restaurants at least once a week as a way to support them.

There are, of course, inherent problems with takeout from sit-down restaurants. The product is not meant to be shoved into boxes and eaten a half-hour later at home, and no matter how well the food is handled, it will always lack vital ingredients: the buzz of a crowded room, the repartee with servers, the people-watching, the eavesdropping. In short, the experience of being there—and not home. “We just send food out into a void now,” says Jennifer Meltzer, who, with her husband, chef Ed Reavis, owns All Set Restaurant & Bar, a seafood spot in Silver Spring. “I’m a micromanager. I want to control the guest experience, but with takeout it’s out of my hands once it’s out the door. We don’t see the reaction on people’s faces when they eat.”

I asked restaurateurs in the Bethesda area about the takeout challenges they face and ordered dinner from four places—Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville; Muchas Gracias, which opened in March in Upper Northwest D.C.; Real Nutritious Food (RNF), which opened in Chevy Chase, D.C., in August; and Money Muscle BBQ, a concept that Reavis and Meltzer debuted in September as an adjunct to All Set.

The kinamot feast at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Until the beginning of February 2020, Kuya Ja’s chef and owner, Javier Fernandez, held monthly kinamot dinners. He’d push together the tables of his small, fast-casual Filipino restaurant in two rows of 12 seats each, cover them with banana leaves, heap steaming mounds of rice down the center, and top them with portions of 15 dishes, everything meant to be eaten with your hands. (Kinamot means “with your hands” in Cebuano, the language of the chef’s native Filipino island.) The dinners would sell out quickly, and guests sitting shoulder to shoulder, many of them strangers, would introduce themselves and shake hands before digging in. It wasn’t meant to be a takeout experience.

That was then; this is now.

I arrive at White Flint Plaza on a Friday evening and park right in front of Kuya Ja’s. With my phone, I place and pay for my order—a $79.99 takeout kinamot that feeds two to four—using the giant QR code posted in the restaurant’s window. I call the restaurant and ask them to text me when the food is ready so I can come in to retrieve it. Instead, 15 minutes later, a masked employee brings the aluminum foil roasting pan containing my dinner and places it in my open trunk. (Fernandez offers the kinamot on Thursday through Sunday once a month.)

I regret that I didn’t attend one of Fernandez’s kinamot dinners when I had the chance, and it occurs to me as I make the 40-minute drive to my home in Washington that he surely wishes he could still host the communal dinners in person. He knows the clock ticks on the quality and integrity of his product once the food leaves the restaurant.

When the food will be eaten and how it will be reheated and served are beyond Fernandez’s control—anathema to chefs—so he does what he can to ensure that the takeout version is the best it can be. Due to Kuya Ja’s small size, 60% of its sales pre-pandemic were takeout, so the staff is familiar with packaging food and getting it to people’s homes in good condition. “We place our lumpia and empanadas in domed compostable clamshells [containers that hinge on one side and snap together on the other] because they have more air circulation,” Fernandez explains. “If you put fried foods in the black plastic [polypropylene] containers we use for our combos, rice and noodles, they condensate and drip onto the fried food and make it soggy. The clamshell, made from sugarcane, absorbs the condensation.” When customers pick up a kinamot, the staff tells them the tray is covered for sanitary purposes but suggests they open the lid as soon as they’re in the car, letting air in so the crispy items don’t steam. (I bent back a corner of my kinamot’s lid.)

At home, I put my chef skills to use. (And wash my hands a lot.) Removing the kinamot’s lid, I marvel at the splendid array spread out on banana leaves: lumpia (long, thin egg rolls) with chicken and pork filling; Fernandez’s signature lechon (roasted pork belly and crackling skin); a rotisserie chicken leg; barbecued rib-eye skewers; homemade sweet pork longanisa (sausage); seared bok choy; mango jicama salad; green papaya salad; steamed rice; garlic fried rice; shrimp chips; fresh lime wedges and various sauces. (The sauces and salads are in sealed plastic containers.) In the center, standing majestically upright, is a whole fried red snapper. Fernandez slices the fish in a way that four boneless fillets curl away from the spine when it’s fried, a flourish of technique as practical as it is dramatic because I can easily remove the fillets from the fish’s frame to reheat them.

Real Nutritious Food chef Andre Williams preparing a takeout order. Photo by Deb Lindsey

To prepare the food, I first separate out the cold items and sauces. It would be easy to pop the pan into a conventional oven for the remaining items to reheat, but the rice would dry out and the foods meant to be crisp wouldn’t be. Instead, I reheat the lumpia, fish fillets, meats and soggy shrimp chips in a 375-degree toaster oven for about six minutes. A toaster oven works better than a conventional oven for crisping up foods because the heating elements are closer to the items in a more confined space. It performs its job as I expected, restoring crunch to the fried items and the skin on the chicken and lechon belly. I reheat the rices and the bok choy in the microwave in small covered bowls. To serve, I place the hot and cold dishes and sauces attractively on a large platter.

I always set the dining room table properly, sometimes even using the good china. We never eat with disposable utensils (I tell restaurants not to include them to save them the cost) and never (well, rarely) eat out of takeout containers. I often go out of my way to plate the meal in a professional way, as I would have when I worked in a restaurant.

Our kinamot meal is excellent, partially because I gave it the chance to be by devoting thought to its reheating. Would I have preferred freshly made food at Kuya Ja’s and laughing it up with newly made friends? Of course. But I have learned in the pandemic to alter and manage my expectations. Takeout is now my way to keep up with the restaurant scene. It is also not lost on me that restaurants may not be there in the future if I don’t support them now. (Sadly, they may not be anyway.)

Other restaurant operators have had to play catch-up on the takeout front during the pandemic. Mark Bucher, the co-owner of Medium Rare in Bethesda, saw takeout sales for his steak-and-french fries restaurant go from 10% pre-pandemic to more than 75% this past November. “Chinese restaurants and pizza guys have perfected takeout. Domino’s will get a hot pizza to your door or it’s free; no one is saying it’s good, but it’s there and it’s hot. Even McDonald’s designed recipes to travel and be in a bag. Sit-down restaurants never had to deal with that,” Bucher says.

French fries are a major component of Bucher’s concept. To stave off sogginess he uses a container that has a hole in the lid (it actually makes a big difference), but he advises customers to eat the fries on the way home if they want them crisp, or to reheat them in a toaster oven. (I usually avoid ordering fried food, but if I do, I always open the container it’s in, or poke holes in it, for the ride home. I’m also a fan of the “eat the fries in the car” strategy.)

The four restaurants I order from mostly serve their food in a combination of microwavable containers, some plastic (polypropylene, which is recyclable), some compostable and some paper. “We have to use what works,” says All Set’s Meltzer. “Before the pandemic, we were exploring alternative straws, even cornstarch straws. Now, no one cares about straws.”

My personal decision: I care about the environment and sustainability, but I’m letting restaurants off the hook about plastics until the pandemic is over. I allow towers of containers to rise in my basement and spare myself a guilt trip for occasionally throwing some out. By the way, the cost of packaging has skyrocketed, according to Scott Attman, vice president of Maryland-based Acme Paper & Supply Co., which sells to many mid-Atlantic restaurants, including Muchas Gracias and Money Muscle BBQ. He indicates the cost of plastic containers has increased 18% since last spring, and paper bags are up 16%. At Medium Rare, Bucher says, packaging for a dinner for four is $8 to $10, but he hasn’t raised his prices. (Not to mention the cost of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer. Reavis and Fernandez both note that the price of food service gloves has risen 400% since the pandemic began.)

Carryout containers at Medium Rare in Bethesda.

Restaurants have added menu items that travel well and adjusted others to make them appropriate for takeout. That’s what chef Robert Wiedmaier and his corporate chef and business partner Brian McBride did at their 42-seat (pre-COVID-19) Bethesda restaurant Wildwood Kitchen. “The average age of our guests is 50 to 75. They’re not sitting in a small restaurant in COVID,” Wiedmaier says. “In October, we turned the place into Wildwood Market. Now we do only takeout, selling dips, salads, soups, pasta sauces and other things that travel well and reheat without being soggy, like braised lamb shank, boeuf bourguignon and chicken pot pie.”

It’s a good idea to follow these chefs’ leads and order foods that hold up well to reheating, which is what I do one afternoon at Money Muscle BBQ . Reavis and Meltzer’s COVID-19 plan was to make the All Set menu more takeout-friendly and to incorporate Money Muscle BBQ into the All Set location because barbecue and its sides travel and reheat well. They couldn’t come to terms with the landlord on the renovation, so they turned Money Muscle BBQ into a food truck and added barbecue to the All Set menu. (“Money muscle” is a barbecue term that refers to the most flavorful and succulent muscle in a pork butt.)

Money Muscle’s menu offers Texas-style brisket, pulled pork (the kind Reavis grew up eating in his Virginia hometown near the North Carolina border), baby back pork ribs, beef short ribs, and brined, then smoked turkey legs, half chickens and chicken wings. I order an assortment of the meats one Sunday, plus sides of coleslaw, baked beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and skillet cornbread.

Reavis is constantly making efforts to improve packaging. “I use some plastic containers because I’m not comfortable putting collard greens and mashed potatoes in paper boxes. I learned to put the sauces in a separate bag so they don’t spill over or explode. We were stapling bags at first, but now we use our own branded stickers as tamper seals and also on folded paper boxes to keep them from opening. I also started wrapping barbecue in butcher wrap instead of putting it in plastic containers. It keeps it moister and has a more rustic look,” he says.

All of the dishes I order are easy to reheat at home. I put the meats on a sheet pan with a little water, cover the pan with foil and put it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes to warm it through. (The water keeps it from drying out.) Macaroni and cheese and cornbread go into the toaster oven. Collards and baked beans get microwaved. And lots of paper towels go on the table.

Part of my takeout strategy is to wait until I get to the restaurant to place my order, as I do at Real Nutritious Food. That way, I know the food is at its peak. The restaurant’s chef and owner is 31-year-old Washington, D.C., native Andre Williams, whose experience in D.C. kitchens includes stints at Bluejacket, The Salt Line and Founding Farmers.

The food—rare soy and garlic-marinated lamb chops with crab fried rice and charred broccoli; a broiled 9-ounce jumbo lump crabcake with corn and cherry tomato succotash and potato wedges; and hot mumbo sauce chicken wings—is still warm after a 15-minute drive home, but I prefer it hotter. The crabcake and potato wedges go into a 375-degree toaster oven for 10 minutes. The broccoli, fried rice and succotash go into serving bowls and the microwave for a minute or two. (Williams’ crabcake ranks among the best I’ve had in the D.C. area.)

I always order meat and fish to a doneness that’s less than I prefer so the reheating doesn’t ruin them. My rare chops get a 30-second microwaving that brings them to medium, perfect for me. The wings are fine without reheating, even if the sauce wasn’t on the side as requested. What do I do about the mistake? Nothing. My advice about complaining in a pandemic? Unless it’s something egregious, let it slide.

Not far from RNF is Muchas Gracias, which was supposed to be Buckeroos. Chef Christian Irabién, 40, had been tapped to create and run Buckeroos, meant to be, in his words, “a refined, boutique-y, Tex-Mex restaurant.” The Mexican-born, El Paso, Texas-raised chef hired and trained the staff and was ready to open last March when COVID-19 disrupted his plans. He shut down Buckeroos, let everyone go and started making hot meals for Spanish-speaking immigrants who had lost kitchen jobs. That grew into selling meals to go and grocery items to people wary of supermarkets in the pandemic’s early days. Demand exploded, and so did the community’s desire for restaurant food. Irabién hired back two employees, then eight more.

“We went from opening a concept I was working on for years to opening an entirely new concept, Muchas Gracias, in 72 hours,” Irabién says. “For Muchas Gracias, we’re not trying to do culinary acrobatics. I didn’t hire trained chefs. I hired people who were out of work and needed a job. This is hug-driven Mexican food, not chef-driven.” Takeout, he says, accounts for 75% to 85% of Muchas Gracias’s sales.

If you’re getting food for yourself, why not help out restaurants and pick up some for others while you’re at it? A week before I order from Muchas Gracias, I email a group of seven neighbors to ask if they want in. Five do. On the prescribed day, I pick up the food, pay for each order separately, deliver to my neighbors and email them their receipts so they can reimburse me via Venmo. (They all rave the next day and thank me for organizing, which I do at least once a month.)

The first thing I notice about my order is the clever branding. Food labels that resemble name tag stickers say “HELLO, MY NAME IS” on the top and “!Muchas Gracias Mercadito!” on the bottom, both on red backgrounds. (Mercadito means little market.) In the white center is the name of the item inside, say “Tortilla” or “Guacamole,” printed by machine. It’s smart to invest in clever packaging; these days, that’s one of the first impressions a diner gets of a restaurant experience.

Irabién made packaging choices through trial and error. “Premade tacos don’t travel well, so our tacos are more like stews with tortillas on the side. Our first containers didn’t hold the stews’ moisture well, and there was seepage in the bag, so we changed to ones that snapped shut and were more durable,” he says. “We use wax-coated paper bags for our tortillas, because they hold heat and moisture well. We make the tortillas in-house from corn we grind and make into masa every day.”

My order includes chips, guacamole and two salsas; elote (corn on the cob) with herb mayo, butter, chili spice mix and queso fresco; kale Caesar salad; and two taco platters, one with strips of beautifully grilled, medium-rare hanger steak, the other with carnitas, pork slowly braised in garlic broth. The platters come with black beans and garlic rice.

I remove the cold sauces and garnishes from the platters and elote, and microwave the hot items separately for about a minute in their black plastic containers. It takes only 10 seconds in the microwave to warm each bag of four tortillas beautifully. On this occasion, it’s easier to serve from the plastic containers so I don’t bother with serving bowls.

I always order extra takeout food so there are leftovers to repurpose as another meal, but also because it helps the restaurant’s bottom line. The day after our Kuya Ja’s kinamot meal, I wok-fry the leftover bok choy, meats and rices, adding other vegetables from the fridge and eggs that I scramble in the bottom of the wok during cooking.

Leftover beans, rice, meats and kale from Muchas Gracias become the base for a rib-sticking stew I prepare, topping it with the remaining guacamole and tortillas that I cut into thin strips and deep-fry until crunchy. Next-day tidbits from Money Muscle BBQ get a similar one-pot treatment to become three quarts of soup that go into the freezer for future enjoyment.

I believe in good takeout etiquette. Having come from a 25-year career in the restaurant business, I always advocate for treating its workers with kindness, patience and generosity, but in these times, I up my game—and tip closer to 30%. I avoid using third-party apps that charge restaurants onerous fees. When you pick up your food, mask up, maintain social distancing, bring your own hand sanitizer and pen, and be just as concerned with “What am I doing to make them safe?” as you are with “What are they doing to make me safe?”

Then go home and fire up the toaster oven.

David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.



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