As summer revs up, many families who've planned vacations and long-anticipated reunions are left wondering whether it's safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak. Most states have reopened, giving residents a semblance of normalcy, but COVID-19 cases are still rising in some areas.
The good news is you can travel this summer, especially if you stay within U.S. borders, as there are still many restrictions on international travel — and if you follow basic precautions.
"It’s OK to have fun, (but) do it safely," Saad Omer, director of Yale Institute for Global Health in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY. "You just need to strike a balance."
Here are some ways to take a safe vacation during the COVID-19 outbreak, from the best modes of transportation to tips to plan safe gatherings.
Choosing a destination
Naturally, how safe your vacation will be depends on where you're going. Omer and NBC investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen offered these tips.
- Check travel restrictions and quarantine rules for your desired destination. Some states require visitors to stay inside for two weeks upon arrival.
- Check the number of cases and hospitalizations rates in the area. Look for a steady decline over at least two weeks.
- If you're visiting loved ones, conduct your own risk assessment. Ask yourself: Is anyone in your group or the one you're visiting high risk? Has anyone been going out in large groups?
- Know the rules in the state and town where you live. If you'll need to quarantine when you return, can you miss work or work remotely?
Although it may seem counterintuitive, flying can be safer than going to a restaurant or public pool, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told TODAY. That's in part because airlines and airports have measures in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It's also now believed that high-touch surfaces aren't as common a method of transmission as previously thought.
Still, flying doesn't come without risk. Here are some ways to lower your risk — and your family's — if you travel by plane.
- Check airline policies beforehand. Choose an airline with precautionary measures you're comfortable with.
- Try to book seats without other people nearby. Many airlines are blocking middle seats to keep more distance between passengers and reduce COVID-19 spread.
- Some experts say window seats are safer than middle and aisle seats.
- Regardless of the airline's policies, bring disinfectant wipes with you, and clean your area carefully before sitting down. If your seat is made of a nonporous material (basically anything but fabric), wipe it down, along with armrests and tray tables.
- Wear your mask the entire flight, except for when eating or drinking.
- Don't wait in line for the restroom. When you use the restroom, bring a paper towel or disposable wipe to touch common surfaces. Then, sanitize your hands again when you return to your seat.
Dr. Allison Agwu, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told TODAY that driving will be safer than flying because "you have more control in your own personal space." Here are some recommendations for staying safe on the road.
- Pack an adequate amount of hand sanitizer, masks, disinfectant wipes and paper towels.
- In rest stops, touch as little as possible. For things you must touch, like door handles and faucets, use a paper towel and throw it out before you get back in your car.
- Always wear a mask at gas stations and rest stops.
- When you leave your car, place hand sanitizer in your seat so you remember to clean your hands when you get back in.
- Public health officials discourage gloves, but if you choose to use them, dispose of them before getting back in the car.
- If possible, bring and safely store your own food.
- If you buy food, before getting in the car, remove as much of the packaging as possible without exposing the food. Inside the car, disinfect what's left, and clean your hands before eating.
- To minimize contact on the road, pay for gas with a credit card, and disinfect the card afterward. Pay tolls electronically with a device like E-ZPass.
- Try to avoid unnecessary stops. Every 2-3 hours is recommended.
- Clean the inside of your car every 1-2 hours. Don't forget about phones and tablets.
Hotels and rental homes
Experts believe hotels and vacation rental homes pose a similar risk of coronavirus transmission. But they're safer than staying with family or friends, Omer said. If you stay in different lodgings, you can arrange meet-ups where you’re maintaining social distance, which is far safer than staying in the same space. Some strategies to consider:
- If amenities are important to you, check which are open before booking, as many shared spaces at these facilities are closed.
- Don't assume your space is clean. Wipe down all hard, nonporous surfaces regularly.
- Big space? Prioritize high-touch surfaces, like keys, TV remotes, night stands, handles on sinks and doors, the fridge (inside and out), light switches, cups and plates.
- Consider asking for clean sheets and making your own bed.
- Visit shared spaces at off-peak times. Wear a mask unless you're outside and there's no one nearby. Leave if you can't maintain social distance.
- Skip indoor shared spaces, especially bars.
- Don't consume any communal food and drink, like cookies at reception.
- Talk to kids about avoiding people in shared spaces. Watch young kids closely to make sure they're maintaining distance. And don't let kids share toys with others outside your household.
- For rental homes, ask your host how much time will pass between you and the previous guest. If possible, delay your stay so there's a 2-3 day buffer. If that's not possible, doing your own cleaning is much more important.
Staying with loved ones
Staying with people without quarantining separately for two weeks after your travel period increases risk of coronavirus transmission, Omer said. But if you can't stay in a separate space, he recommended:
- Ask about the behavior of your host in the weeks leading up to your visit. If they were gathering in large groups or doing any other high-risk behavior, consider alternative accommodations.
- Once you arrive at your loved ones' home, quarantine — if you can — for two weeks before interacting normally with your hosts. If you can't, wear masks indoors, minimize touching and stay in a separate part of the house.
- If you can't quarantine first, seeing family without staying with them is safer. Arrange your visits outdoors and maintain social distance.
Because they're outdoors, beaches, Omer said, are a safe summer activity, provided they're not too crowded. Still, you should take these precautions:
- Look up local guidelines for outdoor activities, and follow them.
- Stay at least 6 feet from people outside your household on the shore and in the water.
- Avoid or minimize time in areas where people gather, like parking lots and public restrooms.
- Skip the boardwalk, if it's crowded. Same goes for food vendors, even if they're outdoors.
- Bring a mask with you, and wear it indoors or in crowded outdoor spaces.
- Bring hand sanitizer with you, and use it any time you touch a shared surface.
- If you rent equipment, disinfect it and let it dry before using it.
- Don't forget sun safety.
Outdoor pools come with a similar risk level as beaches, but they have the added benefit of chlorine, which kills the coronavirus. Skip indoor pools. Outdoors, follow the same guidelines for beaches, and these:
- Ask ahead of time about cleaning protocol and social distancing rules. If they don't seem adequate, don't go.
- Wash yours hands before and after getting in pool.
- Minimize time in locker rooms.
- Bring your own towels unless you're certain the provided towels are laundered properly.
Restaurants around the country have started reopening with new safety measures, like reduced capacity and disposable dinnerware. Call ahead to make sure the restaurant has space to seat you, and consider these tips:
- Only dine out with people you've been quarantining with.
- Research CDC restaurant guidelines beforehand. If the restaurant doesn't appear to be following them, leave.
- Wipe down hard surfaces at your table when you arrive, including the table itself and menus.
- Eat outdoors and far away from other customers. Wear a mask when people outside your party get close.
- Dining indoors? Wear a mask the whole time except when you eat.
- Don't linger, and avoid crowded areas, like the host stand.
- If you want to share food, ask the kitchen to split it for you to reduce the spread of germs.
- Think about the size of the gathering and your outdoor space. People should be able to maintain 6 feet at all times, and follow local guidelines about size of gatherings.
- Only invite people you believe have been following social distancing guidelines.
- Take extra precautions with people who are at high risk for the coronavirus.
- Ask people to bring their own utensils and any food that won't be served right after it's cooked, like pasta salad and dessert, or use disposable utensils.
- Don't serve shared finger food, unless you space the food apart so people only touch their own serving.
- Prep condiments into individual portions or use packets.
- Serve drinks in individual cans or bottles, and ask people to only touch what they take.
- Ask people to wear masks if they get within 6 feet of one another, especially indoors.
- Remove high-touch surfaces from the path to the bathroom. Leave paper towels by doors and in the bathroom so people can use them when touching handles, faucets, etc.
- Arrange your space so it's conducive to socializing with distance, like placing chairs 6 feet apart.
- Cancel the event if the weather will prevent people from staying outside.
- Be aware of how much you drink, as alcohol lowers inhibitions and may increase the likelihood you won't socially distance.
General rules to follow
As Omer explained, the same rules of safety during the coronavirus pandemic apply "no matter where you are." Whenever possible, you should:
- Practice social distancing with people outside your household.
- For activities outside your hotel or rental, try to stay outdoors.
- Avoid touching your face in public, especially in crowded areas.
- Wash your hands regularly, including every time you touch a shared surface.
- Seek out contactless payment options.
- Don't travel or leave your home if you have COVID-19 symptoms.