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Is it safe to take a summer road trip during COVID-19? Here’s what you need to know.

After months of “stay-at-home” orders, many Americans are itching for a vacation. Surveys suggest that about one-third are ready to get out of town this summer, but only one in five would be willing to get on an airplane any time soon. Instead, 2020 is shaping up to be the year of the American road trip.

But is it safe to travel during a pandemic?

Jonathan Thornburg, Director of Exposure and Aerosol Technology at RTI International, urges vacationers to remember that no travel will be completely risk-free when it comes to coronavirus transmission. But with some careful planning and the right precautions, you can reduce the chance of exposing yourself or others. High-risk individuals—those who are older or have pre-existing conditions—should still opt for a staycation.

Consider transmission rates

Levels of COVID-19 transmission differ across the country, and that has important implications for travelers. The CDC notes that visitors to high-transmission areas risk becoming infected; on the other hand, those who reside in communities where transmission is widespread could bring the virus with them. 

When planning your trip and before setting out, examine transmission rates at home, in your destination, and along your route. Public health experts still recommend against venturing too far outside your usual radius. 

Opt for nature, but don’t forget to distance

Thanks to plenty of ventilation and lots of space, the outdoors is a relatively low-risk environment. Still, Thornburg says, it’s essential to keep your distance. “Backpacking or camping on private property are two scenarios with almost no exposure risk once you get there,” he says. “But popular outdoor spots can be a problem,” such as when crowds gather to spy a pod of dolphins or watch Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. 

To help ensure social distancing, many state and national parks are re-opening at limited capacity or implementing reservation and pre-pay systems. Even if you’re staying in a campground with bathrooms, be sure to have plenty of hand sanitizer and biodegradable soap on hand, and wear your masks in shared areas. For campers who don’t need facilities, dispersed camping—on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land, for example—offers the chance to get a bit further off the beaten track.

The other outdoors

Not all outdoor activities involve the wilderness. Millions of Americans flock to beaches, lakes, theme parks, and public swimming pools every summer. Recent news of packed pool parties raised serious concern among public health experts, but the CDC offers guidelines that can reduce risk: In particular, pool-goers should follow social distancing recommendations and wear cloth masks when not in the water (they don’t work and are difficult to breathe through when wet). 

Faced with managing large, moving crowds and an abundance of frequently touched surfaces, water and amusement parks are still working out policies to keep people safe. Since reopening policies differ from state to state—and often from county to county—it’s good practice to call ahead or check online to find out what safety measures are in place before you arrive. 

Limit use of shared spaces

Shared, enclosed spaces are especially risky, Thornburg notes, because the virus can accumulate on frequently touched surfaces or linger in the air, especially in highly trafficked, poorly ventilated rooms. 

As indoor businesses such as museums begin to reopen, Thornburg recommends considering the specific conditions. For example, kid-oriented interactive museums pose more risk than those where adults look at exhibits from a distance. Again, check ahead to learn which safety precautions are in place to reduce or eliminate risk of coronavirus infection. Does the business test employees daily and/or mandate that they wear face coverings? 

Eating and sleeping

Urban travelers will face some of the trickiest questions as they consider how to stay in a hotel and whether to eat in restaurants. 

Thornburg says that hotel ventilation systems are probably not a big concern for coronavirus exposure because the movement of the air likely dilutes the viral load in individual rooms. In addition, many accommodations have upped their cleaning game. However, Thornburg still recommends wiping surfaces with disinfectant and limiting time in shared spaces such as the lobby, elevator, or breakfast area.

When it comes to eating, the lowest risk option would be to bring a cooler of snacks and food to prepare. Or, to support local businesses, grab take-out and eat in a quiet park. The CDC still considers indoor dining to be risky, so those who have been missing the restaurant experience should opt for a patio seat that is at least six feet from others, wear a mask while not eating or drinking, and engage in frequent hand-washing.

Be a courteous traveler

In addition to keeping yourself safe, being a good traveler means minimizing the chance that you’ll expose other people, including locals at your chosen destination, to SARS-CoV-2. When you’re out and about, Thornburg urges travelers to wear masks in public (even if it’s uncomfortable and/or face masks make you breakout), practice good hand hygiene (bring along some sanitizer), give people plenty of space, and avoid lingering at popular sites or exhibits. And if you live in a high-transmission area or you’re feeling unwell, postpone your trip.

Stacey McKenna
Stacey McKenna is a freelance science and lifestyle journalist as well as a medical anthropologist and health researcher by training. You can find examples of her editorial work in Scientific American, Sierra, Afar, and others. In addition, Stacey is an experienced content writer in the health and lifestyle realms, and writes articles about telehealth resources to support both physical and mental well-being during the pandemic.