As the coronavirus surge continues, Anthony Fauci, the country's leading infectious-disease expert, warns that Christmas travel may create more spread than Thanksgiving. However, AAA estimates that while holiday travel will be down this winter compared to years past, even more people are expected to travel for Christmas than they did for Thanksgiving.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging all Americans to stay home. For those that do venture out, some health experts say that traveling by car may be the safest option — but road trips still come with risks. Particularly: rest stops. This is where travelers are going to encounter other people, touch things touched by other people and have more chances for coronavirus exposure.
- Do your homework before you drive
Scott Braunstein, the medical director of the private concierge medical facility Sollis Health, says travelers should do their homework before leaving for a road trip. Plan stops with coronavirus case numbers in mind, and choose rest stops in regions where cases are more in control than others.
"If you go to a state's Department of Health website, it has all of that [coronavirus] information for every town," Braunstein says. "If you can choose to stop in places that are not experiencing such a rapid rise of cases, or not red on the map and considered hot zones for covid, your chances for acquiring something are going to be less."
Once you have mapped out where you should stop along your trip, you'll need to determine what kind of stop to make.
- Choose the right kind of pit stop
John B. Townsend II, public and government affairs manager for AAA, says there are about 2,000 highway rest areas across the continental United States that are run by each state's department of transportation. He says some may be closed during the pandemic, and travelers can check each state's transportation department website for the most up-to-date information on such closures.
Then there are the more than 5,000 private truck stops and travel plazas. According to the National Association of Truck Stop Owners (NATSO), the stops have been following CDC and World Health Organization coronavirus guidelines, implementing sanitation procedures and installing plexiglass barriers at the payment counters.
NATSO members have also been encouraged to adopt face covering policies nationwide — however, mask regulations may vary from one destination to another in accordance with local mask mandates.
Braunstein recommends choosing a rest stop or travel plaza — where restrooms may be larger and better ventilated — over a local restaurant or gas station. Before you choose where to stop, he recommends checking reviews to assess their cleanliness.
And if you show up and find that it's not as clean as you'd hoped, leave. "Be selective and potentially move on to the next option if that one does not look like it's optimal," Braunstein says.
- Understand the dangers of public restrooms.
That may sound extreme, but Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health and senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, says public restrooms are one of the biggest concerns of stopping on a road trip.
It's not just the surface-level cleanliness to be wary of; it's also the invisible danger of so-called toilet plumes. Because a flush can release a plume of aerosolized droplets up to three feet in the air — and we now know the coronavirus can be spread in fecal matter — encountering toilet plumes from others may put you at risk for the coronavirus in a public bathroom.
"Oftentimes people get a false sense of security because if they go into a bathroom and they don't see anyone else, they think they're safe," Feigl-Ding says. "But the way we know aerosols act is they can stay in the room for anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours. It depends on the ventilation, and often bathrooms have poor ventilation."
With those aerosols in mind, Feigl-Ding recommends wearing a premium mask or doubling up on face masks, when going into a public restroom. And Braunstein says to create as much social distance as possible. Avoid using a stall next to others and choose paper towels over hand dryers.
- Take steps to protect yourself
To prepare for rest stops, travelers can carry a personal protective equipment kit with them on the road.
"That [kit] would include things like disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, masks, their own toilet paper, paper towels and disinfectant wipes, and basically pack that in a plastic bag," Braunstein says.
This kit will come in handy when going into public restrooms, or doing things like pumping gas. Health experts recommend disinfecting common surfaces, like gas pumps, before using them, then washing or disinfecting your hands afterward. Some people may opt for using disposable gloves, however, Braunstein warns that if used improperly, gloves may do more harm than good. If you're not feeling confident in proper glove use, you can try to only touch surfaces with a paper towel instead of your bare hand.
Travelers going through high-risk areas can also consider wearing a face shield at rest stops. "Especially if you end up in a small, poorly ventilated restroom where there may be particles aerosolized and hanging out longer, then I would also recommend face shields for people who have access to them," Braunstein says.
Health experts also recommend bringing your own meals, snacks and beverages for the trip if possible. If you have to stop for food, get it to go and avoid eating indoors.
"There's plenty of evidence that being indoors is riskier than being outdoors," Braunstein says. "So being indoors in a fast-food restaurant or any other type of restaurant along the way, when there's a local positivity rate of 10 or 20 percent, you have to assume that there are going to be covid-positive people, even possibly asymptomatic, but still infectious that are standing next to you and nearby you."
This article was written by Natalie B. Compton, a reporter for The Washington Post.