The summer travel season is in full swing, but with it comes the risk of exposure to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
TODAY spoke with Mercedes Carnethon, professor and vice chair of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who also has expertise in the airborne transmission of viruses, about the best practices for travel during the pandemic.
Editor's note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How should I decide where to travel?
Mercedes Carnethon: Paying very close attention to what the disease rates are in a given area would be the driving factor for me about whether I would travel to that area. The strongest evidence we have for strategies to prevent oneself from contracting COVID-19 is mask-wearing, so if it's an area without local masking policies, or if I suspect it has a lot of resistance to masking policies, I wouldn’t travel there.
What should I try to avoid when traveling?
Linsey Marr: Avoid as many other people as possible. Try to choose times that are less popular to travel, you know, the less crowded the airport and the airplanes, the better. Pay attention to distancing, masks, avoid crowded indoor spaces — those are really important for slowing down the spread. I would certainly avoid indoor dining and bars.
MC: While traveling, try not to be closely packed in with people for long periods of time in areas that aren't well ventilated. When you get on public transportation to travel, and public meaning airlines, buses or trains, you are in enclosed spaces that certainly have ventilation, but you're in enclosed spaces with other people who are breathing and coughing and eating and doing other things.
What’s the safest vacation I can take right now?
MC: One of the safest would be to take your own private car, and then your only exposure to other people comes when you stop at gas stations or rest stops or places where you pick up food.
LM: My family did this earlier in the summer. We rented an RV and we drove out to Colorado and Utah and did lots of hiking and outdoor activities. We had our own bathroom, kitchen and bedroom, so we didn't need to really interact with anybody or share space with anybody. We just had to go to the grocery store, which we do anyway.
What precautions should I take when traveling by plane?
MC: I would wear a mask. I might also consider wearing a clear face shield that would stop droplets from coming into the eyes. I would wear that face shield with a mask underneath it. It certainly can't hurt for somebody to also bring alcohol wipes and wipe down seating areas if they feel comfortable doing so.
If I take my mask off to eat on the plane, is that risky?
LM: I would try to minimize it. If you're hungry and thirsty, do it but do it quickly and put it back on.
Should I use the bathroom on a plane?
MC: People need to stay hydrated — that's very important for safe travel — and as you stay hydrated, you may need to use the restroom. I probably would have some hand wipes at my seat once I came back from using the restroom and put hand sanitizer on my hands as well.
LM: I would try to go to the bathroom before getting on the plane since bathrooms are pretty small spaces on planes.
Is the recycled air on planes something I should be worried about?
LM: No, I don't think we need to worry about the recirculated air because that runs through HEPA filters, which remove almost everything. The thing to be most concerned about is the people sitting right around you. There's a chance for transmission with my neighbor or the person right behind me or right in front of me if we happen to exchange exhaled breath before it has a chance to make it through the plane's recirculation system.
Should I wear gloves on a plane or public transportation?
MC: In general, gloves aren't recommended outside of a health care setting because the virus would then end up on the gloves and then the gloves touch other things and tend to spread it around.
LM: You should really just be washing your hands frequently. If gloves help remind you to not stick your fingers in your eyes, nose or mouth, I think the gloves can be helpful.
How can I protect myself if I’m staying in a hotel or Airbnb?
MC: Both of them have policies about cleaning in between visitors. When they come in with cleaning supplies and clean the room, if they have a way to safely leave a window open after cleaning, that would be ideal. I would just want to be sure that they cleaned and that the type of cleaning products they use are those that do sanitize surfaces.
When I came in, I would also wipe things down, possibly with alcohol wipes — particularly high-touch surfaces that would have me touch something, then touch my mouth, like a hotel bathroom sink.
LM: I think it's good if there's as much time as possible between the previous guests and you. Air usually changes out within a couple of hours. I think you want a place where you can open the windows and control your own air conditioning and heating system, and it’s not connected to anyone else’s.
What kinds of hotels are the safest right now?
LM: The cheaper motels are actually a better option. They usually have their own window or wall AC unit, so that's in some ways better. If it’s a motel with a door that goes to the outside, it’s going to be better than having to wander through the halls of a hotel and use the elevator with everyone else.
Should I use the maid service?
MC: As much as I love having people clean up after me, that being the benefit of being in a hotel, I probably would ask that they discontinue their maid service aside from replacing my towels — just to cut down on the number of people who are coming and going.
Is it safe to swim in hotel pools?
MC: I have been told and I have read that the virus does not survive in water, which is why pools can be safe. What's less safe are the areas around pools potentially. And as you're standing on the pool deck and people get out of the pool and they cough and sneeze and project droplets, that's a little risky.
I think that might be a judgment I might make based on the burden of COVID-19 in an area. Would I swim in a pool in Vermont? Yes. In Montana? Yes. In Arizona? No.
LM: I would probably avoid the indoor ones if there's other people around, but I think the outdoor ones are fine if you're able to maintain distance from people and it's not too crowded.
How safe are outdoor amusement parks, theme parks and water parks right now?
LM: Again, it's kind of avoiding crowds and avoiding being close to other people that you want to pay attention to. I think they're a good option because they're outdoors, as long as they're not too crowded. The places where I would be concerned are lines; those are often densely packed, so you want to know if parks are doing something to space people out in lines. Getting food is another place where there's crowds, and on the ride itself. You might want to have every other row empty on a roller coaster or space around you.
Should I cancel my vacation?
MC: There’s no no-risk scenario; it’s bringing together a lot of people with a lot of risk we don’t know about. If a family feels they really must go on a vacation right now because it's cost-effective, then that's a decision that they make on their own. They should take the steps that they need.