Our columnist answers your coronavirus-related questions about health and safety on road trips. (Daniel Fishel/The New York Times)
Dear Tripped Up,
I am 78 and my wife is 76; we’re both in good health. We are planning to drive from Chicago to Santa Monica before Thanksgiving. We are concerned about how to handle hotels, meals, bathrooms and gas stops during the pandemic. How can we stay safe? — Paul
Travel is complicated right now, and tasks that seemed simple a year ago — like checking into a hotel or gassing up — suddenly feel like a huge lift. Americans are expected to take nearly 700 million trips by car this summer, and I have no doubt that many of them share some of your uncertainty.
To help answer your road trip questions, I spoke to two public health experts: Sandra Albrecht, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and Sarah Fortune, the chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Fortune just finished a round-trip drive from Boston to New Orleans.
The first tip both of these experts offered? Accepting the fact that there is some risk in everything right now.
“If you’re going to travel outside your house, you’re never going to get the risk to zero,” said Albrecht, who is also the chief epidemiologist behind “Dear Pandemic,” a scientific communication effort on social media. “That said, you can travel — you can enjoy your life. But you should also engage in smart behaviors and strategies.”
STAYING AT A HOTEL
Do ask about the occupancy “buffer.”
Robot cleaners and UV lights are snazzy-sounding talking points, but there’s a better question to ask about a hotel’s cleaning protocols: How long has the room been unoccupied?
“We’re still trying to understand how much of the virus lingers in the air, but three days is now generally accepted as a good buffer,” Albrecht said. “Even if you don’t clean every nook and cranny of a particular hotel room, that’s a good amount of time to reasonably assume that the virus has died off.”
If a hotel agent (or vacation-rental owner) can’t answer that question, “it would raise a red flag,” she said.
Don’t get lax about crowded spaces.
Common spaces like pools and restaurants are closed in many hotels. To further minimize interaction with strangers, Albrecht suggested checking in and out at off-hours — an industry trend that had already been on the rise pre-pandemic.
GRABBING A MEAL
Do consider a dining contingency plan.
The health experts I spoke with agreed that outdoor dining is preferred to indoor dining.
“We’re still learning about indoor transmission, but regardless, most of us are not going to research the air quality or air circulation specifics of a particular restaurant,” Albrecht said.
Fortune’s experience this summer — where she intended to only eat outside but sometimes encountered no outdoor option or a patio already at capacity — underscored another road trip rule: When plans don’t go as expected, travelers should consider their own risk tolerance. “When you’re on the road you’ve got to eat,” she said.
And in November, outdoor dining may not be possible anyway.
“If you can actually get your food but eat it wherever it is you’re lodging, that’s what would be ideal,” Albrecht said. “That way, you’re still contributing to the local economy.”
Don’t snub the chains.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, many big restaurant chains (like the ones Fortune saw up and down the Eastern Seaboard) have enacted overarching standards about masks and social distancing. That uniformity can be a boon for risk-averse travelers navigating a country where pandemic laws (and culture) vary so widely.
“Corporate America has really taken best practices to heart, and they’re pretty homogenized by now,” Fortune said. “They just make it very easy right now to drive through 10 states — you know there’s always going to be somewhere safe to get food.”
TAKING A BATHROOM BREAK
Do wash your hands. (Then, wash them again.)
“If you’re somewhere and you need to use the bathroom, use the bathroom,” Albrecht said. “I wouldn’t be paranoid about that.”
She said that restrooms in restaurants, gas stations and the like are generally fine. Wash your hands with soap and water twice: after entering and before leaving.
“It’s about your own internal risk barometer,” said Fortune. “I’m pretty risk tolerant — I’m not crazy, but I’m definitely not carrying my own personal toilet around. And the bathrooms I saw this summer had all been scrubbed within an inch of their life.”
Don’t rely on old stalwarts.
In “before times,” a large hotel or department store might have been an obvious place to sneak in a bathroom break. Fortune said that if her road trip is any indication, those options can no longer be counted upon.
“One issue with traveling right now is that more things are closed — or if they’re not closed, they’re closed to people from the street,” she said. “And because there aren’t many museums and things like that open, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re structuring your day.”
GASSING UP YOUR CAR
Do keep hand sanitizer in the car.
There’s no avoiding gas stations on a road trip, but there’s also little reason to be concerned about them, said Albrecht.
“We do know that fomite transmission — or transmission of COVID from surfaces — is relatively small,” she said. “Worst case scenario: You come up to a gas pump and you don’t have anything to clean the surface. Pump the gas, then use hand sanitizer.”
Do wear a mask.
Gas stations are outdoors, but given how pumps are designed — often with two sides, with drivers only separated by a few feet — health experts still recommend wearing masks.
“Sometimes it can take a little while to fill your tank, meaning you’re near other people who are not in your household for a not negligible amount of time,” Albrecht said. “As far as I see, it’s just an easy strategy and I think it will go a long way to help minimize the risk.”