It’s almost summer, and after months of stay-at-home orders and sheltering in place, some of us really need a vacation.
But are you allowed to go on a vacation right now? In a word: Yes. The stay-at-home order has been lifted, and Pennsylvanians are “free to travel,” says Pennsylvania Department of Health press secretary Nate Wardle.
But, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not really that simple, of course. The Health Department says we are still “safer at home” and should consider leaving our houses only for essential activities, as though nothing has changed. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that travel “increases your chances of getting or spreading COVID-19,” and that staying home is the best protection against getting sick.
So while you can travel, it’s important to think about whether you should. While you can mitigate the risk of getting sick, you can’t eliminate it. Here is what you need to know:
Here’s how to think about your risk:
While the idea of spending an extended period of time with strangers in an enclosed space like an airplane may be concerning, the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a flight can be relatively low, says Welles. “People don’t realize that the air in flights is filtered 30 times an hour,” he says. “More often than not, they have HEPA filters, so they are removing 99% of particles, including viruses.”
Airlines are also taking additional measures to lessen the risk of infections, such as enhanced cleaning procedures, blocking seats to enable physical distancing, and requiring employees and guests to wear masks. Some airlines have even instituted temperature checks, and won’t let customers fly if they have a fever (although it’s possible to spread the virus and not show symptoms).
The airport, however, is another story. The reason for the higher risk: Crowds, says Stephen Gluckman, medical director of Penn Global Medicine and professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Traveling by car may be a safer option, Wardle says — especially if it is your own vehicle and you are traveling with people you’ve already been around, such as your family, Wardle says. Plus, Welles says, you can control your environment more in a car compared to somewhere like an airport.
One issue: rest stops and bathroom breaks. When you have to stop, Welles suggests wearing gloves, washing your hands, and wearing a mask. Packing your own food may also be a good idea, so you can reduce your exposure in rest areas.
If you need to rent a vehicle, Gluckman suggests cleaning the car yourself once you get it. Many rental car companies now have enhanced cleaning procedures, such as Hertz, which seals vehicles after a 15-step cleaning process, or Enterprise, which offers a “Complete Clean Pledge” that involves disinfecting high-touch areas. But an extra clean doesn’t hurt.
“I’m not concerned about people getting it from the ocean or a pool. It’s how close you are together,” he says. “If you can park yourself on a beach six feet from other people, I think you are safe.”
So stay away from popular spots. Welles suggests choosing an area that is likely to be less crowded; Wardle recommends hitting the beach earlier in the day when there might be fewer people. And yes, you should wear a mask, especially on crowded beaches and boardwalks — but don’t let it get wet or dirty.
Like going to the beach, camping can be less risky than being indoors, but you still have to be careful.
“A campsite is usually individualized, but if you are at a campground and going to the pool with 50 people, the risk is there,” Wardle says. “Depending on what steps you are taking, you could put yourself at risk.”
Campground bathrooms, Gluckman says, could be “slightly iffy,” so take precautions — or, if you have the means, rent an RV or cabin so you have your own bathroom. And if you go hiking, Welles says, bring a mask and stay away from others, since hiking trails can get busy.
The Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources seconds those precautions, and says you should avoid hiking in groups, only go with people you’ve already been around, and if you are sick, stay home.
If you plan to stay at a hotel or a rental property during your vacation, Gluckman suggests finding out how they are cleaning their rooms, and clean the space yourself once you get there. Many hotels have more stringent cleaning practices now, such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” guidelines, and Airbnb’s Enhanced Cleaning Initiative includes a vacancy period of 24 to 72 hours between guests.
A tricky problem with hotels: Elevators, Welles says, because they make social distancing difficult, and don’t have good ventilation. But at least your exposure is short, LeVasseur says. Still, consider taking the stairs.
Gluckman says a rental property may be safer — provided it is properly disinfected — if it eliminates the elevator issue. They are more self-contained than hotels, so you may not be exposed to as many people. (Welles disagrees, saying hotels are “going out of their way to be extremely clean.”)
“I think a rental property, if you go to rent it for a week or two, that is probably a little safer than a hotel,” Gluckman says. “If you are self-contained, you are no different than when you are home.”