For many families, holiday travel plans are up in the air.
Parents across the country are wondering whether it is safe to travel with kids right now and if they should move forward with holiday travel—or plan a staycation at home. Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't clear cut.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues to advise against nonessential travel, noting that "travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19." Some states continue to impose quarantine or testing restrictions for travelers, especially travelers from states that are currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
On the other hand, airlines and epidemiologists assert that it's safe to fly again thanks to hospital-grade air filtration and rigorous cleaning and screening practices—although, unlike in the early days of the pandemic, planes taking to the air these days are rarely empty enough to allow for 3 feet (never mind 6 feet) of social distancing between passenger groups, especially during peak holiday travel times.
Public health experts agree that while there's no such thing as a no-risk trip during the pandemic, there are ways to significantly reduce your family's risk of getting sick, including wearing masks when traveling by plane, train or bus, washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer—especially after contact with high-touch surfaces—and keeping physical distance whenever possible from your fellow travelers.
Here's how to decide whether to travel with your family this holiday season, and how to reduce risks if you do travel.
How do we know if it's safe to travel as a family?
The CDC's guidelines for nonessential travel are basically a decision tree, encouraging individuals to consider the following questions:
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you're going? You can get infected while traveling.
- Is COVID-19 spreading in your community? Even if you don't have symptoms, you can spread COVID-19 to others while traveling.
- Will you or those you are traveling with be within 6 feet of others during or after your trip? Being within 6 feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others.
- Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? Older adults and people of any age who have a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- Do you live with someone who is more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? If you get infected while traveling you can spread COVID-19 to loved ones when you return, even if you don't have symptoms.
Still not sure whether to plan that family trip? Here's another way of thinking about travel safety during the pandemic.
Epidemiologists identify the risk factors for coronavirus transmission in terms of "time, space, people, place." Put another way, the least amount of risk involves the shortest possible amount of time spent with the most possible space between the smallest number of people in the largest possible place (preferably outdoors). Airline travel, train travel and hotel stays—all of which by definition involve a large group of people confined in a small amount of indoor space—present a challenge for families worried about the risk of virus transmission.
That said, in the absence of clear national guidelines for how, where and whether to travel domestically, it's up to individual families to decide whether travel feels right and safe for them. If your family includes even a single immunocompromised or older individual, your tolerance for risk is going to remain low—or close to zero—and you're likely going to want to stay close to home this holiday season. Likewise, if you are pregnant or the parent of a newborn infant, you are going to want to remain cautious about travel.
If you live in an area where transmission levels are low and declining, you're traveling to an area where transmission levels are low and declining, you're able to take social distancing and cleaning precautions during your trip and no one in your family belongs to an at-risk group, you might decide that family travel is a risk you are willing to take (with reasonable precautions for yourself and others) for the sake of your mental health and your children. If this is the case, you're taking the position that's right for you. If you decide you're not ready, then that's what's right for your family. You know your family's particular situation best.
Here's how experts break down various kinds of travel risks and how to minimize them if you do decide to travel.
Is it safe to fly right now?
Airports and airlines are doing everything they possibly can to reduce the risk of virus transmission on airplanes and keep passengers safe, including temperature checks, health screenings, reducing contact points during baggage check, check-in, security and boarding, frequent deep cleaning and modified seat booking. But every airline and airport has different practices (just like the pandemic guidelines for everything else from reopening schools to requiring masks, it's all a patchwork), and no one can guarantee that it's impossible to get sick from flying.
One bit of good news about airline travel and coronavirus: The likelihood of getting sick as a result of filtered and circulated cabin air is low. That's because most planes use the same kind of HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters that are used in hospital operating rooms to remove infectious particles and viruses from the air. Airborne viral infection on a plane is only likely if you're stuck sitting near a sick person—not just if a sick person happens to be somewhere on the plane.
Also, we know a lot more about how the coronavirus can spread during air travel than we did at the beginning of the pandemic, and the news is mostly reassuring. The main infection risk of air travel during the pandemic, as recent studies have suggested, isn't touching the seat-back tray table or even breathing the air in the plane, but rather coming into close, sustained contact with an infected person on the plane with you. Some studies suggest that your risk of infection on an airplane is surprisingly low as long as everybody (including your family) wears masks.
If you do decide to fly, there are ways to reduce your family's risks—but they involve advance planning, preparation and a not-miniscule amount of tolerance for hassle. Here's how to minimize your risks if you do fly:
- Get super-educated about your airline's booking, seat selection and boarding policies— these vary widely by provider and even by route. On some flights you may be able to rebook for free if it's 70% full. On other flights you may be asked to choose your own seat as you board.
- Likewise, be an expert on what your local airport's check-in, screening and security procedures are—these are changing often, and you don't want to be surprised.
- Download your airline's app and have your boarding passes pre-loaded on your phone.
- Choose a window seat, or wherever you can be seated farthest from other passengers.
- Some experts suggest checking bags to reduce the number of touch-points for your stuff—but the fact is any luggage you bring is going to be in contact with a lot of surfaces regardless. Pack light, and wipe your luggage down after your flight.
- Wear a mask, obviously—all major airlines now require them for passengers older than 2 years of age, except when eating or drinking, and the CDC has recently provided guidance encouraging airlines to eject passengers who won't wear masks.
- Eat before or after you go to the airport, so you don't have to remove your mask to eat while on your flight or to eat in the airport.
- Bring disinfecting wipes and wipe down all surfaces near you, or anything you touch.
Many states now require voluntary self-quarantine or virus testing for out-of-state travelers, so definitely look up what public health regulations are in effect at your destination.
Is it safe to fly internationally right now?
Nonessential international travel is still discouraged by the CDC, although the State Department lifted its blanket COVID-19 international travel advisory in August, and is now requiring travelers to adhere to restrictions and guidelines by destination. Restrictions still apply to international travel to and from many countries, and the Canadian border is still closed to travelers from the U.S. until at least late November. The CDC asks all international travelers to take extra precautions for 14 days after returning from any trip abroad.
Airlines have reduced international service to and from many countries, but it's still possible to fly internationally if you need to. If you do need to fly abroad this holiday season, be sure to follow local and national public health and travel guidelines for your destination, and during the flight, follow the suggestions above.
Is it safe to stay at a hotel right now?
Hotels are, by definition, full of other people you don't know (who come from all over the place) staying indoors for lengthy periods of time, so they definitely don't meet the optimal "time, space, people, place" criteria for lowering the risk of transmission.
That said if your family strictly limits time spent in public areas like the lobby, elevators, restaurant or an indoor pool, that can reduce your risk. Wearing masks and maintaining distance outside your room are also must-dos.
Send one person from the family to the lobby to check-in, ride the elevator with as few other people as possible (in some hotels, lobby waits may be long as elevators are restricted to one family unit per ride), wash hands as soon as you enter your room or touch any high-contact surfaces, wipe down high-touch surfaces in your room with disinfectant and ask that housekeeping be suspended during your stay in order to minimize the number of people entering your room.
Is it safe to take a road trip right now?
Driving in a car with members of your family that you've already been in daily close contact with is safe, experts say. That said, states' travel restrictions vary, so if you're crossing state lines and staying for longer than it takes to refill your gas tank, you will want to be aware of where self-quarantine is expected from out-of-staters.
Is renting a vacation house with another family safe?
If both families have been limiting their exposure and observing stay-at-home restrictions, and can agree on certain safety considerations without damaging a valuable relationship, vacationing with another family can be a safe family travel option this holiday season.
In the best-case scenario, according to experts, both families have tested negative for the virus within days of departure, both families have been quarantining and limiting their exposure to others, both families agree in advance about what constitutes safety precautions before and during the trip—and, crucially, both families keep to themselves and limit exposure beyond their "bubble" while they are staying together.
Is traveling to see family for the holidays safe?
With positive tests and cases on the rise in over 30 states this fall, public health officials have been sounding alarm bells about families traveling to get together for the holidays, including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. In a recent meeting with state governors, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield attributed the recent uptick in coronavirus cases in part to "small household gatherings."
"Particularly with Thanksgiving coming up, we think it's really important to stress the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household setting," Redfield said. The CDC's holiday recommendations include keeping gatherings outdoors, wearing masks and making all get-togethers short and locals-only—or household-members-only.
Even if holiday travel is not exactly encouraged by health experts, especially with cases on the rise again and heading toward a "second wave," the bigger danger, experts say, is the traditional holiday gathering that follows the trip: A lengthy indoor party, with lots of talking, hugging and contact between unmasked people from all over the country (who would, of course, be completely devastated if they were responsible for getting their loved ones sick).
With caution in mind, many people are already getting creative with ideas for socially-distanced outdoor Thanksgiving (bring your own sides, grill the turkey) and looking ahead to a Covid Christmas. While a Zoom Thanksgiving might not sound traditional (or especially fun), there have been, sadly, numerous cases of family members unwittingly infecting each other during vacations and celebrations, including one teenager who accidentally infected 11 family members across 4 states during a recent family gathering.
The upshot: As Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, said in a recent interview, "The consequences of this virus, particularly for older folks—the people that we really want to gather with on Thanksgiving— can be really dire. And, frankly, I'd rather do a Zoom Thanksgiving with people that I love than expose them to something that might kill them." Reiner added,"Next year is going to be much better. Let's get through this, and let's get through it safely."
[This was originally published June 4, 2020. It has been updated.]
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