Historically, road trips have seemed to be the safest way to avoid COVID-19 while traveling. But given the alarming rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that people in the U.S. avoid traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday at a press briefing, Reuters reported. In fact, the CDC recommends staying home in general unless absolutely necessary since that is the only way to reduce your risk of either contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus—especially now that cases are increasing throughout the country. Public health experts are being incredibly emphatic about the fact that people shouldn’t, say, travel to loved ones’ homes for holiday dinners.
The coronavirus will affect our lives for the foreseeable future, meaning that trips will look different even when the CDC says it’s safer to travel. That means you will want to take certain precautions in the future if you plan to travel to see people who live outside of your home. For example, consider asking everyone who will meet to quarantine for 14 days prior and to get a COVID-19 test ahead of time. Of course, this may not be possible for everyone, which then increases the coronavirus risk involved. That said, even a negative COVID-19 test does not fully ensure that you don’t have the virus.
With all of that said, if you take a road trip when the CDC’s recommendation is no longer in effect but the coronavirus is still around, following public health recommendations can reduce some of your risk of getting sick. Depending on the length of your trip, you may need to stop for food or to use a restroom. And arguably, the best part of road trips is making fun stops on the way to your destination. However, you may need to carefully choose the attractions you visit, or to skip them entirely. Below, we spoke with infectious disease experts about how you can plan the safest road trip possible during COVID-19.
1. Research coronavirus statistics and restrictions before you go.
“Your risk of contracting COVID-19 depends on how much COVID-19 spread there is in the community you are in,” Luke Davis, M.D., associate professor of epidemiology and pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at Yale School of Public Health, tells SELF.
The COVID-19 Tracker on the CDC website shows you how many cases have been reported in the county you’re visiting. One of the simplest ways to determine if a certain place has “too many cases” is to look at the trajectory: If infections are rising, then it’s probably not a good idea to go there, Dr. Davis says. Though there’s no specific threshold for what makes a region safe or not safe to visit right now, generally a good approach is to definitely avoid places with upward trajectories compared to those with falling numbers of cases. And, of course, cases are rising quickly in the majority of the nation, which is why the CDC is advising against travel right now.
When you begin traveling again, you might choose to make as few stops as possible by packing your own food and only pulling over somewhere to use the bathroom. Familiarize yourself with the local public health mandates for every region you plan to travel through to ensure you’re not surprised by restrictions. (A list of state public health websites can be found on the CDC website.)
2. Follow public health recommendations to avoid COVID-19.
Even in the future, following the same public health behaviors that have been recommended by medical experts throughout the pandemic will likely be just as important, says John Swartzberg, M.D., infectious disease doctor and clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
That means physical distancing, masking (for children over 2 years old), and keeping hands clean. “Always have a mask on. That goes without saying,” he tells SELF. (You’ll of course need to remove your masks to eat and drink—more on how to eat safely on the road in a bit.) “Carry some hand sanitizer in your pocket and use it religiously,” Dr. Swartzberg adds. Be diligent about not touching your face after touching public surfaces—unless you’ve washed your hands first or used hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands. Even though the coronavirus doesn’t appear to spread very easily via surfaces, it’s still best to be really on top of hand hygiene in general.
A good pre-pit-stop ritual to follow: Park the car, sanitize your hands, and put your mask on before getting out, Dr. Davis says. “Sanitizing your hands beforehand is always a good rule because if you end up touching anything, you don’t want to put other people at risk.” Then, sanitize your hands before taking your mask off when you return to the car. This helps you avoid potentially contaminating your covering or face, he explains. Additionally, the CDC advises cleaning your hands after handling a used mask.
3. Pack a COVID kit.
Masks, antimicrobial wipes, and hand sanitizer should definitely be on your packing list. It’s a good idea to bring multiple masks for each person, especially if you will be on the road for multiple days, Dr. Davis says. “We don’t have any strict data to guide us, but I would recommend having a new mask for each day,” he says. Although wearing a mask offers much better COVID-19 protection than going without one, Dr. Davis explains that, theoretically, if you’re breathing through a mask that has been exposed to COVID-19, the virus could contaminate part of your mask. This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get the disease or that masks aren’t essential overall, but that it’s good to swap in new masks regularly. It’s probably not realistic to use a fresh one every single time you stop and take it off, so store it in a clean paper or mesh bag in between uses. And again, wash your hands or use sanitizer before and after touching your mask.
While you don’t need to wipe down every single surface you come into contact with, it’s a good idea to have antimicrobial wipes available. Specifically, the CDC recommends disinfecting the buttons and handles at gas station pumps. If you stay overnight at a hotel or Airbnb, Dr. Davis advises wiping down areas that you typically touch a lot, like the bathroom.
4. Skip crowded attractions.
If you normally like to stop at roadside attractions on road trips, it’s important to be more discerning about when and how you stop. To make social distancing possible, call popular attractions ahead of time to ask about their busiest days and times, so you can visit when they are slower (if you visit at all). “You really can’t maintain social distance well if there are lots of people in line to get in or crowds waiting outside,” Dr. Swartzberg notes.
Kelly Cawcutt, M.D., associate medical director of infection control and epidemiology at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, suggests asking yourself a few questions before stopping at an attraction: How busy is the area? Can you be outdoors? Is the risk worth the stop? It’s best to choose less popular places or attractions that are extremely conducive to social distancing, like an outdoor park. In some cases, you may not know how busy a place is until you arrive. In that scenario, survey the environment to see if it’s crowded and if mask-wearing is enforced before proceeding with your visit, Dr. Cawcutt says.
Consider going back later if the attraction is busy. On top of keeping yourself and your family safe, there’s a non-coronavirus-related bonus: You’ll get a better experience anyway when there are fewer people blocking the photo opportunities. Or you can just continue on to your destination.
5. Avoid contact with other people and objects in bathrooms (when you can).
“Bathrooms are a high-risk area for many different pathogens, including bacteria and COVID-19,” Dr. Cawcutt says. She recommends using a private bathroom (these single-stall options are sometimes marked as family restrooms) when possible to avoid being in a cramped space with other people. (One thing to note: The coronavirus mainly spreads through large respiratory droplets people expel that quickly fall to the ground, but in rarer cases it can also be airborne, meaning it can spread via smaller respiratory droplets that linger in the air. This means that, technically, you could contract the virus even if no one is in the bathroom but someone with COVID-19 used it recently enough that those smaller droplets are still in the air. The likelihood of this depends on factors like ventilation.) “If a more crowded bathroom is the only option, try to keep more distance between people in line and wear your mask at all times,” she says. A face shield may protect your eyes from respiratory droplets, so Dr. Davis recommends wearing one in addition to your mask when you’re in small, crowded spaces.
Try to minimize your contact with surfaces, such as door handles, though the key is to thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands after touching anything. “Physical abilities will limit who can open doors with a single foot, avoid touching the toilet seat, and avoid touching handles,” Dr. Cawcutt says. Just do your best to limit what you touch, and wash your hands immediately after using the bathroom. “I often will also use hand sanitizer again after exiting the bathroom if I had to touch the door to open it,” she adds.
There are other options for people who don’t feel comfortable using a public restroom. (We all have different amounts of risk that we are willing to take.) This Go Anywhere toilet seat ($80, REI) folds out into a portable toilet that attaches to a bag, so you can easily dispose of waste. Funnels like this one from Pee Buddy ($14, Amazon) are designed for people with vaginas and make peeing outside or in a vessel in the car a little easier. Of course, it’s important to be careful about where you stop since public urination may be an infraction on the state’s legal code. Look for private, safe areas and ask your family to keep watch if possible.
6. Stick to take-out meals or bring your own food.
You may have to stop and eat at some point if you’re on the road for hours or days during a future road trip. Dr. Swartzberg suggests opting for take-out instead of in-restaurant dining to avoid the number of people you’re in close proximity to. If you’re traveling with another adult, just one of you can go grab the food while the rest of you stay inside the car (or while the rest of you step out of the car for some fresh air while staying away from others).
Restaurants with outside seating are the best option if you choose to dine at an establishment, Dr. Swartzberg says. (Some restaurants have added enclosed outdoor seating, such as tents. This restricts airflow and is not as safe as outdoor dining, the New York Times reported.) Scan the area to make sure the restaurant staff wears masks, that as many patrons as possible are wearing masks when not eating or drinking, and that there is ample distance in between tables (at least six feet is recommended). However, eating your own pre-packed food is the safest option, Dr. Cawcutt says. (Think sandwiches, salads, fruit, vegetables, and other items that can be stored in a cooler). The more time you’re around other people, the higher the COVID-19 transmission risk.
7. Ask about cleaning strategies in your hotel or Airbnb.
It’s possible to make your hotel or Airbnb safer if you need to spend the night somewhere, Dr. Cawcutt says. “Consider planning ahead and asking what the cleaning policies are and how long the accommodations were empty before you arrived. Also, ask if they disinfect the rooms,” she says. Some hotels offer mobile room keys and contactless payment options, which are good ways to limit your exposure to other people, according to the CDC. Wear a mask into the hotel, obviously, and open the windows and crack the door for a short period for better airflow, Dr. Davis recommends. He adds that it’s not likely you’d pick up the virus from other things in the room, like bedsheets. However, many hotels don’t wash the bedspread or throw pillows after every guest, so you might want to ask how regularly those are laundered. You can set the items to the side (and wash your hands after handling) as an extra precaution.
Clean high-touch objects, like doorknobs and surfaces in the bathroom, with your antimicrobial wipes if you want to be extra safe. As always, wash your hands immediately after touching things in the lobby or other shared spaces.
Again, it’s best to stay away from crowded areas, such as halls, lobby bars, and elevators, if you’re staying at a hotel. You may want to skip the housekeeping service to avoid having another person in the room, especially if you’re only staying for one night. You can also ask the front desk if the housekeeping staff wears masks while working if you prefer to have your room cleaned. Even if you skip the cleaning, it’s still a kind and respectful gesture to leave a tip since housekeepers clean your room after you leave. (And many hotels have more stringent cleaning standards because of the coronavirus.)
Ultimately, even road trips aren’t completely safe during COVID-19—no matter how many precautions you take. Cases are rising throughout the country, meaning it’s best to be cautious right now. “We have to just hold out a little longer and be sensible,” Dr. Davis says.
When you do hit the road after we get more of a handle on the virus, be sure to also read through the CDC travel recommendations to lower the risk as much as possible for your family.
This story is presented by Volvo.