October marked my first time getting on a plane during the pandemic, and I’ll admit, I was nervous. To make matters worse, I was traveling by myself.
As I lugged my bags through the terminal, I kept thinking that traveling had been hard enough pre-pandemic. Now, I had to carry all of my belongings while extricating my ID from my wallet and quickly removing my mask so the TSA officer could get a peek at my face. Had the circus act of traveling ever been more delicate?
To be clear, my issue was not with wearing a mask. I was happy to do that. But traveling during the pandemic is a different beast, psychologically, emotionally and, well, logistically. And it's one that many of us will have to tackle as we venture to see our families—or get away, just for a little while—for the holidays.
Unsurprisingly, the number of travelers hitting the skies and roads to see family for Thanksgiving is expected to drop this year by at least 10 percent, according to a recent AAA report—the largest one-year drop since the Great Recession in 2008. But the forecast still estimates that up to 50 million Americans could travel for Thanksgiving.
And that figure could drop even more, experts say, because of rising Covid-19 cases across the country. More than 1 in every 400 people tested positive for coronavirus in the last week, according to the New York Times. Many of the country’s hot spots are targeted in the northern and central parts of the country, like North Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming, and more than 250,000 Americans have died from the disease.
So how do those of us who plan to travel for the holidays keep safe? We talked with epidemiologist Michael Drennon and Rick Piccolo, CEO of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, for guidance on how to travel safely and peacefully in these strange times.
If you’re sick, don’t travel.
No matter how important your special Thanksgiving or holiday trip, if you’re starting to feel sick and have symptoms, don’t travel, says Drennon, who works for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.
Remember, symptoms for Covid-19 vary and can present in a range of ways, from a common cold to severe respiratory distress. Signs to look for include fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or nausea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Be realistic about the risks.
Do your research before traveling and remember that positivity rates in multiple states are going up, Drennon says.
The CDC has a helpful tool where users can look up each state’s Covid-19 case numbers for the last seven days, as well as travel recommendations for different countries and states. Certain states have travel restrictions in place, like Maine, where visitors either need to show a recent negative Covid-19 test, quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, or be from two nearby states that are exempt.
Drennon also cautions that the vast majority of those who die or experience severe effects from Covid-19 are older than 55, so traveling from afar to see Grandma and Grandpa may not be the best idea right now.
Wear a mask all the time, not just sometimes.
Be liberal with your mask usage, Drennon says. When you’re at the airport, don’t just wear your mask while you’re on the plane or in the terminal, but also when you disembark and when you’re getting your luggage. Basically, unless you’re actively eating or drinking, keep your mask on.
The same goes for traveling in a car. When you’re riding in a car with family members, it’s understandable that you may not wear a mask. But if you stop for lunch or get gas, wear it.
At SRQ Airport, all employees are required to wear a mask when in public areas, says president and CEO Rick Piccolo. There is no mandate for passengers to wear masks while in the airport, but there is signage asking passengers to please wear a mask. And “by and large,” Piccolo said, “people are wearing them.”
Bring your own stuff.
To minimize the amount of foreign surfaces you are touching, Drennon recommends bringing everything from beverages and snacks to Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. The more you can avoid handling foreign objects, the better.
Get a flu shot.
As we gear up for flu season, Drennon advises getting one to be safe.
Airports have you covered.
Piccolo says that flying is “very, very safe, both in the airport and in the air,” and that’s in large part to safety precautions airport staff have taken.
Since the pandemic, SRQ officials have doubled the airport’s janitorial staff, who make sure to clean every area, especially touch points like elevator buttons and hand rails.
Every counter, be it at airline ticketing stations or gates, has a sneeze shield, and there are space markers in places where people line up. There are also 15 hand sanitizer stations throughout the airport. The air conditioning system filters the air through HEPA filters and UV lighting, and the airport is also in the middle of a $250,000 renovation that will render its restrooms touchless. Employees must wear masks while in public areas, and they undergo temperature checks every day. The airport also has two free temperature checking stations for passengers.
Getting tested is a good idea, but remember it's not a fail-safe.
However, Drennon says, testing positive does mean that you shouldn't interact with strangers or members of your family you do not normally see. And do not assume that a rapid test taken just before Thanksgiving that comes back negative means you are 100 percent out of the woods.
The same goes for returning from your vacation. The virus can take days to show up in levels consistent enough with a positive test. That means that getting tested the day after you deplane may not give you an accurate result. Drennon suggests waiting at least six days, because that will give enough time for your exposure after an at-risk event to incubate.