Travel during coronavirus: Should I cancel my trip to avoid COVID-19?

From the outside, the facade of Destination (a prominent Beijing venue that expressly welcomes gay people) is downright drab. But inside this four-storey cultural centre on the east side of the city, the works in the nonprofit art gallery can push boundaries.

This is no easy feat as censorship restrictions have been tightening in China under President Xi Jinping. And, although same-sex relations were decriminalised in 1997, gay Beijingers say they continue to face discrimination. They look longingly to Taiwan, where a recent decision to legalise same-sex marriage on the self-ruled island of 24 million is being celebrated throughout the world. Taiwan has long been the heart of gay Asia.

In mainland China, acceptance of same-sex couples has progressed at a glacial rate. Many gay Chinese will never come out to their family, and there are still gay conversion centres around the country.

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However, there is a quietly present gay community in Beijing. Destination, which opened 15 years ago as a nightclub and has since expanded to become a cultural centre, is one of the few places where gay men can be open about their sexual orientation, observers say.

Since the centre’s opening, its clientele has remained mostly gay men, but it’s more than just a place to find a date. The centre provides anonymous HIV testing, practice rooms for a men’s choir, yoga and dance classes. And on the third floor, the art gallery, ART-Des, provides a window into the current state of gay art in Beijing.

Today the centre of the gallery is dominated by a bronze sculpture of a dozen sinuous men, clean shaven and nude, beating drums. On the wall hangs a mural depicting a group of male companions, casually dressed in boxer shorts; in the lower corner is an image of one hand gently grasping another. Another work depicts a deeper level of intimacy. As two-toned torsos lean into each other, both clad in only white briefs, one man cups the weight of the other’s groin.

Very few art galleries in China are willing to show works by gay artists, or art that addresses homosexuality, says Gao Jianxiang, a sculptor and painter in his mid-twenties whose work is shown at ART-Des. Because of this, he says, most artists will “paint from the closet” to have their works gain wider acceptance.

But by doing so, Gao says, artists become complicit in the discrimination against gay people. “Destination is providing an important platform, in that it will allow works that portray same-sex relations, and its door is open to out artists,” he adds.

The curator of ART-Des is Pierre Alivon, a French photographer who has lived in Beijing for four years. The gallery, like other cultural organisations in Beijing, may receive directives from the local cultural bureau, one of many government entities that can influence, or sometimes even dictate, what kind of artwork should not be shown.

All galleries must operate within Chinese law. This includes adhering to censorship guidelines. For example, nudity is generally not allowed. While censorship in China dates to long before Xi, it has ramped up under his rule. In 2014, the president gave a now well-circulated speech warning that salacious art results in “cultural garbage”. Now, whenever Xi reiterates that art should “serve the people” and be rooted in a Marxist consciousness, there have been recurring crackdowns on content across all mediums.

However, the boundaries of censorship are difficult to define. Particularly with visual works, deciding whether a work is salacious or vulgar can be subjective, leaving grey areas for artists to work in.

Case in point: a large watercolour piece on display at ART-Des (which secured all necessary approvals for its exhibit) is a figure drawing of a young man who is nude save for a well-placed leaf. In theory, given the censorship, this painting typically would not be allowed at any gallery. Yet this same watercolour was shown at the Beijing International Art Biennale, organised by the capital’s municipal government. All artwork for the event had government approval.

Another artist, who asks to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of gay rights and art censorship, paints Victorian-style portraits, some of which occasionally feature nude figures. His works have been displayed at ART-Des. He recognises that his style would not pass muster with Chinese censors.

Despite this, he points out that “one can still be a great artist”, even if artwork is not displayed at galleries in line with the government’s stance. “To me, that shows there is freedom, despite what outsiders imagine,” he says. But what about limiting the subject matter that art can address? He casts a long gaze, and says, “Yes, perhaps it’s not as free as the West; but it’s not as closed as people think, either. We’re not North Korea.”

Gao, the young sculptor, sees things differently. He says artists do not feel free to create works that reflect gay subject matter, because of the pressures of “widespread misunderstanding and disapproval”.

Indeed, most gay artists create works without being open about their homosexuality. A study jointly conducted by the United Nations Development Programme, Peking University and the Beijing LGBT Centre found that only 5 per cent of “sexual and gender minority people” are “willing to live their diversity openly” in China.

The more politically aware will use their art to “fight for social equity, reduce misunderstanding and discrimination,” Gao says.

There have been a few openly gay artists in China, including photographer Ren Hang, who rose to international fame with provocative work that was sexually explicit. Even so, Alivon has heard of gay artists having difficulty in selling their artwork, not because of the work’s aesthetics, but because the artist is known to be gay.

“Other people may wonder why he or she purchased artwork by a gay artist – then people may wonder if the buyer is gay themselves,” Alivon says. That is part of the reason ART-Des plays such an important role for gay artists. It offers a space to have work shown to the public, in an effort to reduce misconceptions, as well as provide a venue where potential buyers can view artwork.

But hope springs eternal. Zhao Keyuan, a sculptor whose work has been displayed at the gallery, suggests that as the government leadership gets younger, “the situation will gradually improve”.

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As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, whether to travel, and where it’s safe to go, has become increasingly complicated. Experts say you need to stay informed. Here, their advice on some of the most pressing questions facing people who might be considering traveling.

Should I even go?

This is up to you, experts said.

“People need to make an individual decision at this point, weighing the risks and benefits,” said Scott Weisenberg, an infectious disease doctor at New York University School of Medicine, and director of the university’s Travel Medicine Program.

Weisenberg said travelers should consult with a health care provider and monitor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for the most up-to-date travel notices before making a decision. The CDC has recommended travelers avoid “all nonessential travel” to destinations with Level 3 travel notices.

These countries include: China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

If you are an older adult or you have a chronic medical condition, the CDC is advising you to avoid visiting Japan, which now has a Level 2 travel health notice.

If you are thinking about boarding a cruise, the CDC recommends that travelers defer those plans – especially if they have an underlying health condition. Cruises group large numbers of people in very close proximity, which “promotes the spread of respiratory viruses, such as the virus that causes COVID-19,” according to the agency’s website.

“For people who are at a higher risk, they should really think carefully about what is the risk of the coronavirus in the area that they are going to,” Weisenberg said.

Refunds, airlines help

It depends. Typically, you would have to at least pay a cancellation fee or booking penalty if you did not buy a fully refundable ticket, which is usually more expensive.

But the coronavirus has hit airlines hard, and many, including Delta, United and American, are loosening their booking policies and suspending cancellation or rescheduling fees.

“At the moment, the airlines are being very helpful,” said Jonathan Breeze, chief executive of AardvarkCompare Travel Insurance, a travel insurance company. “These are not normal circumstances and the airlines are seeing that people are not booking flights, so airlines are offering commercial flexibility.”

“Obviously, the 800 numbers are overwhelmed,” said Michael Holtz, the founder and chief executive of SmartFlyer, a luxury travel agency. “Because of the coronavirus and the news, things have just spiraled out of control and a lot of people have questions.”

90 minutes to talk to someone

On Tuesday, many of the major airlines in the United States informed travelers that they could expect longer wait times to speak to a customer service agent.

“We are receiving more calls than we typically do and your hold time may be longer than usual,” a United recorded message said. The wait time was 90 minutes.

Other airlines like Delta, redirected callers to their websites and their apps, where they could find more information about rescheduling or canceling flights, a recorded message instructed. American had the option to leave your contact information for an agent to call you back in the next two hours, the longest you could hold your place in line.

Holtz said the airlines’ websites and apps are travelers’ fastest way to answer their questions or change their travel plans.

“My advice is to use technology,” Holtz said. But in the current situation, when customer service representatives are overwhelmed, he does not recommend resorting to Twitter. “It’s not necessarily going to make things faster,” he said.

If travelers have the good fortune of having a travel agent, they should contact the agent as soon as possible, as many have direct connections with airlines, Holtz said.

Travel insurance

Insurance companies have very specific circumstances under which they pay out if you decide to cancel or interrupt your trip.

Choosing not to travel because you are concerned about getting infected with the coronavirus is not one of them, nor is a government advisory, said John Cook, president and chief executive of Quotewright.com, a travel insurance company.

“Those covered reasons are very specific and they do not include being fearful of being exposed to a virus and the government telling you not to travel,” Cook said.

The answer has been to buy what is called cancel-for-any-reason coverage, which costs more, but usually lets you recoup about 75% of your money, Cook said.

But that option may be disappearing. Jason Schreier, the chief executive of APRIL Travel Protection, a travel insurance company with yearly sales of more than $1.1 billion, said that his company’s sales of cancel-for-any-reason insurance had jumped 275% since the outbreak began. As of last week, APRIL stopped selling the upgraded policies after its underwriters required the company to pull them from the market, saying that it was not meant to cover such a concentrated risk among travelers.

“We’ve never seen a spike in the any-reason purchases like we’re seeing now,” Schreier said. “It’s an unprecedented spike, which caused an unprecedented reaction.”

Other companies, like Generali and RoamRight have also stopped letting purchasers upgrade to a cancel for any reason policy, according to letters they sent to insurance agents.

But others, including Allianz Global Assistance, are going in the opposite direction and extending their coverage. Epidemics are usually not included in travel insurance coverage, but Allianz has said that for a limited time it will accommodate claims for trip cancellation and emergency medical care for travelers who become ill with the coronavirus. Those who cancel their trips to China, South Korea and the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy would also be covered, said Daniel Durazo, director of marketing and communications at Allianz Global Assistance USA.

Re-entry restrictions

If you travel to a city that does not have a large number of confirmed cases – or perhaps no cases at all – but the number of confirmed cases rapidly increases during your stay, it could affect what happens when you return home, Weisenberg said.

“You might be restricted on your re-entry,” Weisenberg said, adding that you could be asked to quarantine yourself at home, or be placed in a special facility.

Even if you are not quarantined by health officials, some companies are requiring employees who have been traveling to work remotely, he added. And things are changing rapidly.

“Those answers may vary depending on ongoing public health changes,” Weisenberg said. “Once we have widespread testing available, then it will be easier for travelers to have a better idea of what the risk is in different areas.”

More than 10 states in the United States have declared a state of emergency or a public health emergency, including Washington, California, New York and Florida. As a practical matter, that does not affect travel – flights are not canceled and the CDC has not issued any travel restrictions. States of emergency are used by local and state governments to help them shift funding, as well as to have the authority to close schools and other facilities.

“You can go there,” Weisenberg said. “The main risk would be to your health.”

There could be other consequences, however. Your employer, for example, might decide that you have to self-quarantine once you have returned to your home state. Check and see what policies are in place before you travel.

As of right now, Weisenberg cautioned travelers who might be tempted by a cheap airfare to put a lot of thought into whether they should book. Their safest option is to limit travel until the world has a better understanding of the virus, he said.

“Think it through, don’t go on a whim,” he said.

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