If you’re wondering about the official advice for travel in California, eight months into shelter-in-place, it’s still "limit your travel."
And yet people are traveling. Hotels are being reserved. Airbnbs are being booked. Airports are busy. As the holiday season fast approaches, people are wondering if — and how — they might visit family for traditional gatherings, while also reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
So we looked at guidance from the state of California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as these Bay Area medical experts:
Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, senior associate dean, faculty development and diversity, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of health research and policy at Stanford University
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine, associate dean for regional campuses at UCSF
What Are the Official Rules on Traveling?
It depends on who you ask.
On November 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom joined the governors of Oregon and Washington in issuing a travel advisory urging people entering their states or returning from travel outside their states to self-quarantine to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The advisories urge against non-essential out-of-state travel, ask people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country and encourage residents to stay local.
This state guidance comes on the heels of recommendations that were recently released by the nine Bay Area counties plus the city of Berkeley around travel, with the holidays specifically in mind. The guidance states that "nonessential travel, including holiday travel, is not recommended. Traveling outside the Bay Area will increase your chance of getting infected and spreading the virus to others after your return."
The state’s own travel guidance still reiterates that travel should really only be for work or in urgent situations right now, and still asks you to “avoid (traveling) long distances for vacations or pleasure as much as possible” to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But they also offer this specific guidance to consider from the CDC, "before traveling away from your community":
Is the coronavirus spreading where you are traveling?
Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very sick from coronavirus?
Will you be able to keep 6 feet of physical distance from others during or after your trip?
The state’s official tourism body, Visit California, says that COVID-19 travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic “still allow travel in California, and many tourism assets have reopened.” They also urge you to consider the impact of wildfires in the state on your plans.
So, essentially, recreational travel is still discouraged right now. But if you’re determined to travel despite the official guidance, or if you absolutely have to travel for an essential reason, there are at least certain strategies you might employ to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus as much as possible.
What Are the Safety Basics for Travel?
The basic rules for any travel right now are the same for being outside your home at any time: wear your mask, distance as much as possible and wash your hands. Everything else would be about being an informed consumer and using your best judgement to keep risk as low as possible.
Per the state’s guidance, do not travel if you are sick, or if someone in your household has had the coronavirus in the last two weeks. Do not travel with someone who is sick.
The state also recommends that if you choose to travel, you need to start by doing some in-depth planning. Check in on what COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates are like with the local health department where you live, with the health department at your ultimate destination — and with health departments along your planned route, too.
Can I Travel to See My Family for the Holidays?
A lot of people are wondering this right now, especially as the pandemic has prevented many families from maintaining their usual physical contact for months now.
While doctors say there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of catching or spreading the novel coronavirus when venturing out, there are things you can do to reduce the risk. The recommendations released by Bay Area public health officers contains tips for for doing just that, with travel for the holidays specifically in mind.
If you travel outside the Bay Area, this guidance "strongly" recommends a self-imposed quarantine for 14 days when you return "if your activities while travelling put you at higher risk of getting COVID-19." Such activities are defined as including:
"Spending time within 6 feet of people you do not normally live with, while you or anyone around you was not wearing a face mask – especially if you were indoors"
"Traveling on planes, buses, trains, public transportation, or other shared vehicles, if face masks were not worn at all times by both you and the other people in the vehicle."
For folks who are determined to travel, and want to minimize their risk, we also created this short checklist quiz in consultation with medical experts and government health guidelines, to help you keep track of your household’s distancing habits and test for leaks in your stay-at-home bubble.
When you try the quiz you’ll be reminded that taking precautions will reduce, but can’t eliminate, your risk.
What if I Really Have to Fly?
As the CDC says, flying will increase your risk for COVID-19. Even though their guidance confirms that most viruses and other germs don't actually spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, this kind of travel means you’re spending prolonged time in security lines and airport terminals, where you can be brought into close contact not just with others, but with surfaces that could be harboring the coronavirus. Being in an assigned seat also makes social distancing hard.
Both our experts — Dr. Yvonne Maldonado and Dr. Peter Chin-Hong — said they really wouldn’t get on an airplane right now unless they absolutely had to — in the case of, say, a family emergency. But if you absolutely must get on a domestic flight, they recommend investigating the airline’s safety policies before you fly.
Do they keep middle seats empty to enable social distancing? Do they enforce face coverings?
Bring disinfectant wipes and wipe down your seat and anything you touch in the bathroom, if you use it. Keep the air vent on by your seat, and choose a seat as close to the window as possible and as far away from where other people are sitting as possible. Bring your own food or make sure your food is pre-packaged if you purchase it in the airport or on the plane.
And wear your mask at all times.
What if someone’s sick with COVID-19 on your flight? The CDC says pilots have to notify them of all illnesses on a flight, and if a traveler is deemed a risk to public health, they’ll collaborate to contact any passengers or crew who might have been exposed.
For that reason, says the CDC, make sure you give the airline your up-to-date, reliable contact information when making your reservation — so they can find you, to tell you if you’ve been in contact with someone with the coronavirus.
Are Some Places Safer to Travel to Than Others?
Dr. Chin-Hong advises that much like you’d research the weather at a potential destination, you should look up the COVID-19 case numbers and risk levels. Are their case numbers rising? Are they at risk of an overwhelmed health care system — one that wouldn’t be able to care for you, if you got sick too? How far would you have to drive home if things got bad?
Take a look at a county tracker like this one or the state’s own county monitoring list, and do your research. And remember that the more densely populated a place, the harder it will be to maintain social distancing.
Also, while you may normally love exploring new regions when there isn’t a pandemic raging, Dr. Maldonado says this is still “not the time” to experiment with new travel destinations and all the unknowns they entail. Having a degree of familiarity with where you’re going — and whether the health care system could support you if you got sick and where the hospitals are — is still incredibly important right now.
I’m Choosing to Stay in a Rural Area With a Small Population. That Should Be OK, Right?
Unsurprisingly, the rural outdoors is generally safer than urban areas for COVID-19 risk right now, confirm Maldonado and Chin-Hong.
But just because a county is rural doesn’t necessarily mean its COVID-19 rates are low. And even if they are, remember that you’re the one potentially bringing in a risk of COVID-19.
In sparsely populated area, residents might not feel the “need” to wear a mask regularly, so be prepared to potentially be the only one wearing a mask in rural areas, and stick to your own values on the issue. Even if people are giving you odd looks.
And if you’re going really rural, and you’re solo, make sure people know where you are — in case you get sick.
If Driving Is Safer, How Can I Road Trip Safely?
Making your trip in a car undoubtedly reduces your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 because of how contained you are from others. It’s way less risky than taking a plane or a train right now. But by leaving your household and hitting the road, you’re still running the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and should take precautions — especially if you’re planning to drive longer distances.
Unless you’re purposefully limiting your mileage, you’re going to need to get out of your car at certain times. It’s smart to plan your route and be aware of the COVID-19 risks in the areas you’re driving through — if you’re driving through a hot spot, you may wish to limit your stops.
Bring an ample supply of wipes to keep your car disinfected by wiping the steering wheel, surfaces, gearstick, parking brake and inside the dashboard every time you return to your car from a gas station, rest stop, restaurant or lodging — basically, from anywhere you’re around people or touching surfaces.
Keep a sealed bag in your car for disposing of your used wipes and gloves. Stash your mask(s) safely somewhere where you can easily and quickly grab it.
You’re almost certainly going to need to stop for gas, so remember to wipe down gas pump handles with your disinfectant wipes. You might consider bringing a supply of gloves to wear when refueling and using gas station restrooms — just remember to avoid touching your face when you’re wearing them. When stopping for gas, wear your mask at all times.
When stopping for food, always consider drive-thru, grab-and-go or takeout over in-restaurant dining. With the potential for breaking social distance, decreased ventilation, increased time in one spot and the risk of surface transmission, indoor dining really is a “perfect storm,” Maldonado says. Any time you spend inside somewhere like a restaurant will really increase your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. And if you do decide to dine indoors and spot that it’s a buffet, turn right around, Chin-Hong advises.
If you’re renting a car, consider the rental company’s cleaning and pick-up policies. And it goes without saying that now is not the time to be giving rides to strangers or picking up hitchhikers, either.
Are Hotels OK to Stay in Right Now?
They’re open again after initial closures, that’s for sure. So if you’re planning to stay in a hotel, it’s up to you to do your due diligence and research their COVID-19 policies and prevention practices before you make a reservation.
Call and ask if all staff are wearing face coverings at work
Make the most of options for online reservation and check-in, mobile room key and contactless payment
Ask about any extra prevention practices being implemented by the hotel, such as plexiglass barriers at check-in counters, and physical distancing signs in the lobby
Ask if the hotel has updated policies about cleaning and disinfecting or removing frequently touched surfaces and items (such as pens, room keys, tables, phones, doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, water fountains, ATMs/card payment stations, business center computers and printers, ice/vending machines and remote controls)
If you decide to stay in a hotel, the CDC recommends the following practices:
Wear face coverings — especially in the lobby or other common areas — and limit close contact with others
Minimize use of areas that may lead to close contact (within 6 feet) with other people as much as possible, like break rooms, outside patios, inside lounging areas, dining areas/kitchens, game rooms, pools, hot tubs, saunas, spas, salons and fitness centers
Consider taking the stairs — otherwise wait to use the elevator until you can either ride alone or only with people from your household.
Choose contactless options when possible, like room service orders for example
How Can I Safely Stay in an Airbnb or a Similar Rental Property?
If you're reserving a self-contained property, you'll certainly be encountering fewer people than you would in a hotel. “Self check-in” is often a filter on rental property searches, which will allow you to remove the need to interact with your hosts.
Drs. Maldonado and Chin-Hong stress the importance of checking the reviews for anywhere you’re considering staying.
Many owners are promising enhanced COVID-19 cleaning procedures, and increased spacing between guests. You’ll want to know that they’re cleaning and disinfecting anywhere you’re going to stay, especially if someone was there right before you. If a place has zero reviews, you’re lacking potentially crucial information — so you may choose not to book such a property.
You might consider messaging or chatting with an owner or host to drill down on their policies and cleaning practices. They’ll understand: this is a pandemic. And if they don’t? Don’t stay there.
When it comes to travel in general, you basically want to assess what Dr. Chin-Hong calls the “COVID-19 values” of the place you’re staying, as well as the surrounding area. Talk to people, like hotel owners or locals: Are people taking COVID-19 seriously? Have they been masking?
OK, I Traveled... and Now I’m Worried I Might Have COVID-19. How Long After I Return Should I Get Tested?
Maldonado and Chin-Hong confirm that there’s a window of around two to 14 days from when you are exposed to when your symptoms show, or when you would test positive. The average length of time for this is about five days. That means, our experts say, that getting a test five days after you return from traveling is a good rule of thumb.
They advise being extra sure to maintain your usual pandemic protocol of keeping social distance and wearing a facial covering in public before you get your test. These precautions mean you can be somewhat reassured that even if you did contract COVID-19 on your travels, the risk that you’ve infected others is much lowered.
In addition to the significant risk long-haul international flights pose to spreading the coronavirus globally, you could find yourself stuck in multiple sticky situations even if you’re able to book a flight. For one thing, several countries are currently barring entry to travelers from the United States.
Even before you leave, plans and reserved tickets could be thrown into total disarray as airlines are canceling many international flights and travel within another country can be totally unpredictable. If you manage to get on your flight without cancellation, the country to which you’re traveling could change its travel rules and deny you entry as a noncitizen with very little notice.
Even if you do manage to enter another country, you could be exposing yourself to an overwhelmed health care system, where your access to potentially urgent medical care if you contract COVID-19 would not be guaranteed. This isn’t to mention the possibility of travel restrictions within that country, and with bordering nations.
Lastly, as the CDC warns, choosing to travel internationally right now might mean having to remain outside the United States for “an indefinite length of time.”
What Else Should I Consider When I’m on My Trip?
The big takeaway? If you decide to go against official guidance and travel this fall, this isn’t going to be a “normal” vacation. You will be 100% less carefree than you might usually be on your time off, and you’ll be doing things like:
Planning your route to check it doesn’t take you through any COVID-19 hot spots, rather than taking the scenic route
Choosing a restaurant based on how far apart their outside tables are, rather than what you see on their menu
Arriving at your rental property and disinfecting the surfaces, rather than jumping in the pool straightaway
Strolling 20 minutes into a downtown area where you’re staying and having to turn back because you’ve realized you’ve forgotten your mask
If all of this sounds incredibly stressful, you might reconsider why you’re choosing to take a trip right now — and potentially redesign your plans.
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, it may be that, in 2020, traveling isn’t what’s going to provide it.
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