With coronavirus cases rising in popular vacation spots, including the Carolinas and Florida, with the highest number of new cases in a day on Sunday (15,300), should people be going on vacation?
Yes, with the same precautions you would be taking if you were home, said Dr. Keith Armitage, medical director of the University Hospitals Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health in Cleveland. Before COVID-19, the travel center mainly assisted people traveling internationally to ensure they were prepared (such as vaccines) for travel.
The Beacon Journal asked Armitage his advice about summer travel plans, amidst rising COVID-19 cases nationwide.
Q: As cases are spiking, should people be taking their summer vacations?
A: Yes. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the real risk of contracting coronavirus is being indoors with strangers unmasked. Whether you go to a bar or restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, versus a bar or restaurant in the Carolinas or Florida, there’s a real risk. Right now the risk is going to be higher in the Carolinas or Florida, but the risk is still high enough in Cleveland.
The safest vacation would be to drive someplace, stay in a facility where you’re not aggregated with too many people and do outdoor activities and don’t go indoors to restaurants or bars. Being outdoors has a much lower risk, unless you’re on a packed outdoor restaurant deck or bar. Indoors, you have these super spreader events where one person infects 50 to 100 people.
I think people can enjoy hiking, swimming, boating, camping or whatever outdoor activities and sightseeing. It’s being indoors with unmasked strangers that people have to avoid.
Q: If you’re outdoors, do you still need to make sure you are social distancing? I’ll give an example. I heard of a friend group of several families who rented boats and were mixed on the boats.
A: I would call that medium risk. Anytime you bring new people into your core group or if you’re meeting with four families, there’s a chance one of those people in the four families is asymptomatic. The risk is lower outdoors, but it would be better to do it with one family. If four families were together and eat indoors, you could have a situation where everyone gets infected. I think it’s less likely if they were outdoors sharing a boat. The safest thing is to do as much social distancing as possible.
Q: When a family travels by car to their vacation destination, what risks are there along the way, like public bathrooms?
A: Early on in the pandemic, we were all really heavily focused on surfaces. You still should use precaution for high-touch areas. If you stop at a rest area and you touch the door or touch the faucet, just do a really good job washing your hands or wipe the surfaces. Also, wear a mask if it is inside.
Q: is it better to rent a house versus a hotel?
A: I think an AirbnB or a condo would be best. A lot of hotels are really taking steps to mitigate risk, having online check in, clearing the rooms, keeping people out of the lobby, but again, it’s indoor with strangers. If you’re walking through a hotel lobby, you want to have a mask on. The ideal situation would be an AirBnB or a rental that had been empty for a couple of days.
Q: If you need to be in a hotel for vacation or work travel, what should you do? Is there a concern with being indoors in a hotel room?
A: In your room you’re OK. A lot of it depends on how well the air circulation is. In the room, there might be risk for higher-touch surfaces. You can wipe things down yourself, like the telephone and the doorknob and the most important thing, the remote control.
I would skip eating in the breakfast buffet area. Take a mask, get your food and eat it in your room.
Q: But if I’m in a hotel room, I’m still indoors with strangers, albeit not in the room. Is it safe?
A: It’s not impossible, but I don’t think the virus is going to spread through the hotel ventilation system from room to room. It’s really a crowded bar, etc. People can spread the virus just by talking loudly. There’s been so many well documented cases of bars and restaurants around the country or a surprise birthday party where everybody gets it, with sometimes tragic outcomes.
Q: Are planes safe?
A: Airplanes have good air circulation and good filters. You’re not going to get coronavirus if you’re in row 2 and someone in row 30 is coughing. It’s not going to spread that far. The risk is people a couple of rows around you. If everyone wears a mask, the risk is really low. There’s good air circulation if people mask. The problem is people get on the plane and they pull their mask down to their chin. Masks are annoying. I get that. But if everyone on the plane kept their mask on for a two or three hour plane ride, I think the risk is pretty low.
Plane travel is not high risk and the risk can be mitigated by masking.
As an indoor location, planes are much safer than bars or restaurants.
Q: What about a longer plane ride?
A: The shorter plane ride, the safer. With longer plane rides, it’s going to be harder to comply with consistent masking. That’s the big difference.
Q: Once you’re at your vacation destination, is it better to try to take as many precautions, such as avoiding going to the grocery store (like getting delivery) or taking other precautions like you would while at home to avoid being indoors with strangers?
A: I think the biggest thing for people going on vacation — don’t eat inside. Don’t go to a club or bar inside. Even eating inside, you have to take your mask off inside to eat. If the restaurant has social distancing and dividers and everyone is wearing masks, the risk is lower. But a crowded bar where people are talking loudly, that’s a nightmare scenario.
Q: What about eating outside?
A: If there’s a breeze and sun, eating outdoors where there are tables spread out, I think that’s lower risk. High-touch areas that get sunlight, the virus does not live on them very long. The virus disappears 10 times as fast when it is hit by UV light.
Q: If you were eating outside, would you still keep your mask on until you eat?
A: I would try. It’s how close I was to people. I think the risk of aerosols outside is lower.
Q: What about the beach? How safe is the beach and does it depend on how close I am to other people?
A: The environment where there is sun and breeze is low risk. If you can stay 6 to 8 feet from people, there’s lower risk. But when people are packed together, that’s what makes me cringe. And it’s not being on the beach that is unsafe, it’s going to the club or restaurant while you’re on the beach.
Q: What about international travel?
A: The risk on a longer flight is probably higher. You’re in a plane for a longer time and poorer compliance on longer rides. It depends on where you go, there are certain hot spots. Anywhere you go in the world, it’s the same precautions — it’s a longer plane ride and you have to take the same precautions. Many countries also make you quarantine once you’re there, not allowing you to get out.
Q: Speaking of quarantine, if you go on vacation to a state that has higher cases, like the Carolinas or Florida, should you quarantine yourself when you get back?
A: If you took appropriate precautions when you’re traveling, I don’t think you need to do anything different when you come back. If you went to Florida and you went to nightclubs, you sure are heck should quarantine when you get back. If you went to Florida and you don’t go indoors with strangers without a mask on and you take precautions when you travel and are there, don’t do any high-risk behaviors, I don’t think you need to quarantine.
The bottom line is if you take a car on vacation, rent a condo or house or stay in a hotel with appropriate mitigation, you can have a safe vacation.
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