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Do I Stay or Do I Go? Travel in the Age of COVID

Vacationing requires caution but can be done safely.

Leah Kelly/Pexels
Source: Leah Kelly/Pexels

Dr. Lawrence Stanberry normally does a huge amount of travel for work. He’s spent much of the past two and half years on airplanes, as the director of global health programs at Columbia University’s Medical School. But that was before the coronavirus pandemic. These days, the vaccine expert’s not using his frequent flier miles. And he thinks you should think twice about flying, too.

Stanberry says you can’t socially distance in a meaningful way on a plane. You’re crowded together with poor ventilation. If someone coughs in the tiny bathroom the germs stay there. Even with masks and handwashing, there’s a chance a deadly particle might reach you.

“There’s no way I’m getting on an airplane soon,” says Stanberry. “It’s the kind of space I would avoid.”

With lockdowns easing in some areas and schools on break, Americans are desperate to hit the road. We all deserve a break after 100 days of this crisis. But whether to travel, and more importantly, how, is something to painstakingly consider before clicking on Expedia.

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Are you traveling for pleasure or because an elderly relative needs help? Will you go mad if you don’t get out of town? Are you especially vulnerable if you get sick? Honestly weigh whether the risk of contracting the disease is worth the pleasure or business involved. Then figure out the safest way to get there, stay, and eat.

Experts like Stanberry shared their thoughts on what to consider as you plan to get out of Dodge. Wherever you end up, religiously follow the CDC advice: use cloth face covering when in public and bring wipes. Wash hands over and over (and over). And don’t touch your face.

Risk assessment

“If you must travel, do so with the understanding that there is some risk. But risk is not zero sum,” says Dr. Carlos Vaamonde, a specialist in infectious diseases and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The devil is in the details.”

For instance, the Vaamonde family loves adventure holidays in exotic locales like Cambodia. They’ve paused recreational travel for now. However, a relative must unavoidably go to Florida.

For max protection, she’s getting on the plane with an N95 mask, a face shield of sorts, and probably gloves. She’ll wipe down the seats and try to avoid the bathroom. Once on the ground, she’ll avoid contact with people who might be infected.

Aside from weighing the cost-benefit, assiduously research your intended destination. Does it have a low rate of transmission? Are cases and fatalities rising? That would be a sign to go elsewhere. Two websites provide updated information on the trends in localities across the country, covidexitstrategy.org and covidactnow.org.

Appreciate that what we know about the virus changes over time. The approaches that the CDC recommends now may change. Whatever plans you make be flexible and ready to change tack if the infection spikes while you’re there. Don’t book a room or ticket without reading the fine lines on refunds.

There’s no point in tempting fate because you wanted to get your money’s worth on those two last nights at the resort.

Lodging

All evidence points to the greatest spread coming from aerosol particles indoors. If you want to get away for a vacation, look to spend most of the time outdoors and away from crowds. The smaller the place and the fewer the people, the less probable exposure.

An RV or an Airbnb that is unique to you would in theory have a smaller viral load than staying at a hotel with many guests and elevators. If the physical space is open and airy like a camping ground or if the room faces onto a terrace, like at a motel, you’ll likely face lower stakes, too.

“Having said that, you can’t be outdoors without being indoors at some point,“ notes Dr. Howard Forman, a professor of public health at Yale University.

You’d need to leave your tent to use the communal bathroom, or go to the gas station to fill up the RV. Then you come into contact with random people and potentially contaminated surfaces.

If staying in an Airbnb, book the premise just for your party and ask the hosts to air out the house, especially bathrooms, the day before you arrive. Check reviews by previous guests to see if the hosts are holding to Airbnb’s stated policy to leave 24 hours between guests and clean the space.

As for hotels, check the policy on mask-wearing by staff. When reserving a room, ask for one on the ground floor to avoid stairwells and elevators, which can be breeding grounds for contagion. Forman cites a case of someone who got infected going down a flight of steps on the way to a garbage room. “That’s one of those things that you can’t account for,” he says.

Also avoid the gym. Regarding your room, forgo housekeeping, or ask that the person changing your room comes in while you’re out and leaves the window open to circulate air. Only return several hours later.

Transport

Your mode of transport is as important as where you stay. Air travel requires spending time in security lines and terminals. It’s all well and good to arrange to stay in a low-prevalent venue like rural Montana. But If you need to go through an airport might cross paths with passengers from states with higher infection rates like Florida or Arizona. Every hour in the air and airport extends the hazard, so aim for shorter flights at less crowded airports.

Forman worries about buses and trains as well. He says there’s only so much one can mitigate risk by sitting next to an empty middle seat or wearing a mask, as prescribed by Amtrak. “That doesn’t get it down to zero.”

Driving yourself presents a greater opportunity to control circumstances. If hiring a driver, use a touchless payment system, suggests Dr. Daniel Caplivski, the director of the Travel Medicine Program and professor of infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

He also recommends you arrange for a larger vehicle to facilitate social distancing from the chauffeur. Keep the windows open, wipe down seats and handles with disinfectant and never take off your mask.

Food

Caplivski suggests avoiding buffets and indoors restaurants that don’t allow for social distancing. When ordering room service, ask that it be left outside your door. If buying takeaway, ask for a plastic container and wrapped plasticware that can be wiped down before eating. Skip salads and other cold meals. The virus is less likely to survive on food that is heated.

Remain vigilant

Whatever you do, don’t let down your guard. Stay abreast of the latest guidelines of authorities like the CDC.

“It’s important to remember that we are barely four months into the pandemic and are learning new things all the time,” says Forman. “Two months ago, people were reticent to recommend masks. Things change over time. Do anything to remain prudent.”

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