During the Pandemic, How Safe Is the Great American Summer Vacation?
Memorial Day is fast approaching, summer travel plans have mostly been wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are climbing the walls.
Is there any way you can get out of your house and have a little bit of fun, without running a huge risk of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus?
Experts say yes -- if you maintain the social distancing rules that everyone absorbed during the nationwide lockdown.
Staycations are obviously the safest way to go, and there are plenty of perfectly safe outdoor activities that don't require a lot of travel, said Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease specialist with the Cleveland Clinic.
"There are still options. We don't all have to stay home. Everybody has cabin fever," Taege said. "Even to just go out for hikes in parks, that would be safe. If you're somebody who enjoys fishing, go out by some large lake where there's lots of room for people to spread out."
Beaches, lakes, pools
The beach also might be safe, if you can find a sparsely populated stretch of sand -- but that might not be realistic, said Donald Schaffner, a professor with the Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, N.J.
"If I were to go to the Jersey Shore, which is opening up this weekend, that would place me at higher risk depending upon how many people are there and whether they are socially distancing," Schaffner said.
Another expert noted that beaches, lakes, bays and rivers are unknown quantities when it comes to COVID-19 infection.
"We currently know very little about how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus survives in natural aquatic environments, such as lakes, rivers and the ocean. Coronaviruses might be harmed by salt water and the high levels of light on sunny days. But even a modest wind can spread airborne viruses much more widely than would happen on a calm day," said Kay Bidle, a microbial oceanographer in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers.
"The amount of virus in the air may be lower outdoors than in an enclosed room, but the presence of wind makes it important to practice social distancing, even in the surf lineup," Bidle added. "Safely enjoying lakes, parks and beaches is possible, but social distancing measures are still critical."
Experts are split on whether your local swimming pool would be a safe place to unwind during hot summer days.
The chlorinated water would kill coronavirus, but pools typically tend to be crowded, Taege said.
"People aren't going to be wearing masks bouncing around in a swimming pool," Taege said. "I think public pools, I would be hesitant. I wouldn't say it's out of reason or out of question, but I personally would be hesitant."
But let's say you need to get away from your house for a night or two, just to get a break.
Camping or backpacking would be your best choices, particularly if you can find trails and campgrounds that aren't crowded, Schaffner said.
However, hotel rooms and rental properties can also be safe, if their cleaning practices are solid.
Hotels pose a challenge
Many hotel chains are leaving rooms open for at least a day between occupants, which should be long enough for any virus left on surfaces to die out, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and hospital epidemiologist with Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, N.Y.
"If a hotel is leaving a room empty in between customers for a day, that is a good move in terms of making sure everything is done right," Glatt said.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association has issued an industry-wide set of health and safety protocols called "Safe Stay," promoting frequent disinfection of surfaces such as elevator buttons, room phones and alarm clocks.
It's going to be tough for a hotel to keep up with constant disinfection, Taege noted, so guests should maintain proper hand hygiene with alcohol-based sanitizer or soap-and-water washing.
"All it takes is for someone to grab a door handle to go into a hotel and if there isn't somebody there wiping that door handle down every time someone goes in and out, you could pick it up," Taege said.
A rental property like a beach house or lake cabin is likely to be safer because there are fewer strangers coming in or out, but it's very important that you ask the vacation rental company about their cleaning and disinfection program, Schaffner said. Again, it's best if they leave the property vacant for a day or more between renters.
Tips for traveling safely
Traveling to your getaway presents another set of obstacles for avoiding COVID-19 infection.
Experts said people concerned about their safety probably will opt for car travel, or possibly even renting an RV.
"On a more extended vacation, I would foresee people driving to destinations, as opposed to airplanes, buses or trains where you're going to end up confined with a lot more people for an extended period of time," Taege said.
Air travel in the time of COVID-19 will be very different from what people are used to, experts say.
People will be required to wear masks in the airport and on the plane, and they should be prepared to undergo a temperature check along with the usual security scanning procedures. Airlines are changing their boarding procedures to promote social distancing and prevent jostling crowds at the gate.
Despite these safety protocols, you're still going to run the risk of being elbow-to-elbow with a potentially infected passenger if you choose to fly, Schaffner said.
"Planes do seem to be sparsely populated these days, but if you are on a plane with someone not 6 feet away and that person is not wearing a mask, that's a bigger risk of infection," Schaffner said.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association has more about cleaning guidelines for hotels.
SOURCES: Alan Taege, M.D., infectious disease specialist, Cleveland Clinic; Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., professor, Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, New Brunswick, N.J.; Aaron Glatt, M.D., chairman, medicine, and hospital epidemiologist, Mount Sinai South Nassau, Oceanside, N.Y.; Kay Bidle, professor and microbial oceanographer, Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University, Brunswick, N.J.