Four Kiwis stepped off a plane into Covid-19's Wild West where, even at the airport, nonchalant Americans played pokie machines and socialised without masks as the death toll continued to soar.
Welcome to the United States - a pandemic Petri dish where partisan political debate has crippled efforts to keep the virus under control.
Our own trip from Auckland to Las Vegas in the middle of June was very much an experiment. City Kickboxing's Dan Hooker would be the first international act flown in to headline a UFC card after Covid-19 shut borders around the world.
The journey provided a stark contrast, not in the accepted science around the way we protect ourselves from Covid-19, but in the way different cultures interpret and adopt those protocols.
New Zealand's Covid-19 free community status is the envy of many countries.
Our relative success lies in our tolerance for temporary curtailing of some freedoms for the collective good. But that threshold for tolerance clearly differs between cultures, and nowhere is this more evident than in the US, where the contest of individualism and collectivism has had palpable influence on the efficacy of their Covid-19 health policy.
Our departure from an eerily empty Auckland Airport was relatively relaxed - there's no community transmission and masks are optional flying out. But 11 hours later, masks and gloves were anxiously donned as we made our way through an equally deserted LAX airport.
Although masks and social distancing were enforced, the lack of health checks and temperature testing was an early warning this was a far less stringent approach than we expected in a pandemic environment.
The domestic flight to Las Vegas was also masked and distanced, but as we disembarked it was immediately apparent that sanity no longer prevailed. Masks were only worn by half of the people and many were playing pokies and socialising as we tiptoed through the airport to meet our assigned UFC chauffeur.
On the 30-minute journey to the hotel, the driver told us how Vegas was dealing with "the Rona". He lamented their pandemic leadership, openly wishing they had our Jacinda in charge. We learned 22 casinos were open with more re-opening each day. When glibly informed the casinos and strip clubs were socially distanced, four collectively wry Kiwis' eyebrows were raised.
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It was a relief to enter the UFC environment, they were taking Covid seriously and had hired a hotel complex off the strip to isolate the athletes. We were intercepted on entry, temperature checked, given photo ID and briefed on rules for the week. Covid testing was immediate and we were confined until the results came back. We were temperature checked daily, with different coloured bands for each day to note you'd passed the check.
Security was stationed at all entrances and in building hallways. There were also cameras set up to monitor comings and goings from the rooms. For training purposes we had an exclusive training room isolated from other teams. The most important directive was that if any health or security measures were contravened the athlete would be removed from the card. A punitive measure that I believe could very well be applied to the New Zealand system.
We were allowed out to shop for food, under strict guidelines. One careful shopping journey aside, we hunkered down in the complex. Two days out from the event, after our second Covid-19 test, we were formally locked down as we waited to compete. At the venue, the locker room was sanitised and social distancing and masks were compulsory. There were no crowds, media interviews were via camera feed and everyone but the athletes were masked or screened. Once the event was complete there were no celebrations, we packed, rested, and waited to catch the plane.
Homeward bound, the process was already more robust, at check-in, each traveller required a call to New Zealand customs to approve entrance on to the plane. The flight protocols were far more restrictive and staff more cautious. Touching down, the contrast to our entry to the States couldn't have been more different. We were herded, temperature checked twice, required to complete a health disclosure form and undergo an interview before being bussed to our quarantine facility at the Novotel in Auckland's Ellerslie. Arriving at 5.30am, the check-in process lasted a further hour, including another briefing and health and temperature checks before we could go to our rooms.
Security was stationed along the fence lines, at all entrances and exits, and every time you left the main hotel to exercise (in the secure carpark) your name and room number was recorded. Food was delivered to your door in a paper bag and your temperature is taken each morning.
Initially I didn't notice the fencing, but after four unmitigated morons absconded from other facilities during the week, smaller fences were replaced overnight by 1.8 metre fencing and a heightened sense of alert from security. Testing on our third and 11th days via a nasal swab, was more invasive than the throat test in the US but has a much higher accuracy rate.
Fortunately our negative results were delivered by text, and we didn't have to experience the more intense isolation process.
As we approach our final day in quarantine, it's clear New Zealand's approach is far more unified and robust than the United States' (though we should acknowledge the UFC for their system). Importantly the Government is reacting quickly to plug any holes which appear in the system moving forward.
The experience, though frustrating, isn't onerous and our user-friendly approach to quarantine absolutely relies on collective responsibility and commitment to the rest of the nation. For 98 per cent of us that is enough, but for the outliers, with mental health issues or anti-authoritarian tendencies, the punitive part of the system needs ramping up. For our less-militarised approach to continue to be effective, we must identify and discourage those who would seek to take advantage of it. The stick must be large and firmly wielded. If you leave facilities, you go into military confinement or a mental health facility. There can be no leniency shown in these cases - our nation's health and economic security depends on it.
Former world kickboxing champion Mike Angove is an international fight sports coach, commentator and analyst.