LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
With the American economy nearly frozen, it's no surprise the travel industry has also been decimated. But as NPR's Ian Stewart learned firsthand, there's one business that's found some nontraditional customers.
IAN STEWART, BYLINE: The government's guidance right now - stay home. It's advice I'd been following diligently. Then two weeks ago, I got a worrying text from my mom. She couldn't smell anything. While there's no confirmed link, some COVID-19 patients have reported a loss of taste and smell. My mom didn't qualify for a test, but both she and my dad are in the high-risk age range. I felt like I really needed to go see them. Flying seemed risky. So did staying in the house with my parents. Even if they weren't sick, I could be a carrier without knowing it. So...
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AUTOMATED VOICE: Thank you for calling Cruise America and Cruise Canada. For reservations, please press 1.
STEWART: I rented an RV, and soon I was self-isolating at 70 miles an hour.
JON GRAY: What we've seen happen is that people are still using our business. They're just using it in very different ways not related to leisure travel.
STEWART: Jon Gray is the CEO of RVshare. It's basically Airbnb for RVs. Both he and Cruise America told me their normal rentals, like getaways to the Grand Canyon, have been almost totally wiped out. But there's a small and growing demand for pandemic-related RV business for people who need self-contained living spaces - utility companies are keeping critical staff isolated on-site, doctors worried about getting their families sick, immunocompromised people who are avoiding airports and planes and...
It's 11:51 on Wednesday - just got on I-66 West.
...Me. It's about 900 miles from D.C. to Iowa City, a two-day drive. Along the way, I stopped at a handful of stores, hoping to find some precious rolls of toilet paper my family desperately needed, with no luck.
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STEWART: Finally, I arrived.
Hi (laughter). How are you feeling?
GARRETT STEWART: Just fine.
STEWART: How are you?
NATASA DUROVICOVA: Shocked.
STEWART: I parked the RV in the driveway. Mama really wanted me to come in the house.
DUROVICOVA: Whatever surface you touch can be Purelled (ph) down. And just, like, inhabit the same space with us at safe distance.
STEWART: But because of how infectious the virus is, I decided it was best to stay in the RV. It wasn't a luxury experience. The shower didn't work. Rain pounded on the roof. It was very cold at night. And I locked the doors in case my parents tried to sneak in for a hug. But at least we could go on walks and have our family dinner together, talking over the phone but looking across the yard from my table to theirs.
DUROVICOVA: It feels so close. I could just go over there and touch the window.
STEWART: I waited nervously in the driveway for four days. Finally, my mom's sense of smell started to come back, and she didn't develop any of the serious complications COVID-19 can cause. So I tore off a few sheets of toilet paper for myself and gave them my last roll. I backed my RV down the driveway and headed east to stay home.
Ian Stewart, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "FAREWELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.