Americans have now been social distancing and quarantining for over 8 months since the first lockdowns in March. A COVID-19 vaccine is still months away, but many people are wondering whether it's safe to resume some of their normal activities, like air travel for business and vacation.
While refraining from travel can be difficult if you once relied on it for your career or for a break from everyday life, the CDC still recommends that travel be avoided when possible. “Airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces,” says the CDC. “These are also places where it can be hard to social distance.”
There are currently 11.5 million cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 56 million cases worldwide. Already, more than 1.3 million people have lost their lives to this virus. On August 6, 2020, the State Department lifted its travel advisory against all international travel. But that doesn't mean you have carte blanche to travel whenever and wherever you want — especially since many countries are now restricting travel from the United States thanks to our sky-high COVID-19 case count.
If you absolutely have to travel, here's everything you need to know.
Who shouldn't fly under any circumstances?
Older adults and those with medical issues, especially heart or lung disease, can be especially susceptible to COVID-19, which can make flying a perilous experiment for many. Also, you will not be able to travel if you exhibit any of the following symptoms associated with COVID-19.
- Fever or chills
- Cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
The problem is that the infected do not always show symptoms, so even if you think you are healthy, you could actually have coronavirus and not even know it. Symptoms generally reveal themselves between 2-14 days after exposure. However, these symptoms are by no means conclusive, and some patients do not experience any symptoms at all. The CDC stresses, “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
What are airlines doing to protect passengers from the coronavirus?
At this time, the CDC recommends that you refer to state, local and tribal requirements before travel. Some jurisdictions are more stringent than others about mask use and safety precautions. If you're traveling abroad, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs can help prepare you for the various entry requirements, including testing and quarantine measures.
Here are the safety measures airlines are currently taking in light of COVID-19.
- Everyone must wear a mask, unless excused by a mental or physical illness.
- Social distancing is still being enforced, from the check-in lines to the very seating arrangements on the plane.
- Contactless check-in is available for faster, easier service that’s safer for all.
- Online reservations are recommended to reduce face-to-face time.
Tips for flying safe
Wear a mask. Period.
Dr. Vikram Tarugu, a practicing gastroenterologist and CEO of Detox of South Florida, warns of the dangers in airports. “Airport ventilation devices are unsuccessful in stopping the virus from spreading. The walls are too high, and the tiny exhausts are so far away from citizens for airflow that, to be frank, they actually do not benefit.” Be sure to protect yourself by keeping your nose and mouth covered when around other people.
Practice social distancing
It may be difficult within the hustle and bustle of the airport, but it’s crucial to maintain a minimum distance of six feet between you and other people. “There could be less chance of airborne leakage at airports, because you would definitely be able to maintain a better distance from strangers,” says Dr. Tarugu.
Water will do more than cure a dry throat; it could help prevent the infection of coronavirus, explains Dr. Shawn Nasseri, a Harvard-educated ear, nose and throat specialist who trained at the Mayo Clinic.
The doctor stresses the importance of drinking water, encouraging travelers to, “bring a water bottle on the plane because your mucous membranes dry out in flight. Your mucous membranes function much more efficiently and effectively when moist and can better repel any viral or bacterial infection.”
Wash your hands
One of the most important things you can do is wash your hands — and then wash them again.
“When it comes to contaminated surfaces, from check-in to boarding to baggage claims, the risks here are as high as the cabins on the plane,” Dr. Tarugu tells us. “In particular, eating places and public restaurants without wiping them off first could lead to some low-level contact transmission.”
Keep washing your hands as much as possible, but especially after you are in public or shared spaces. Be sure to wash for at least twenty seconds. If you use your own hand sanitizer, the CDC recommends a minimum alcohol content of 60%.
“You can also moisten or rinse your nose with a sterile saline spray in order to maintain a moist protective barrier,” advises Dr. Nasseri.
You can still spread the virus up to 14 days after exposure, so it’s important that you self-quarantine as much as possible after traveling.
Where can US citizens fly?
Despite COVID-19, there are many places where Americans can still travel. No matter where you plan to go, it’s critical that you first check the travel advisory for your destination.
“Planning is important,” says former White House Travel Director Gregg Brunson-Pitts. He is also the CEO and Founder of Advanced Aviation Team in Washington, D.C. “Many restrictions are lifting, but knowing potential state and local laws ahead of time can save travelers a lot of trouble.
As a licensed pediatric physician at Invigor Medical, Dr. Poston takes a different approach. “From a medical perspective, I feel like flying is an average-risk activity. Of course, each person needs to weigh the risks and benefits for themselves and they might find the benefits far outweigh the risks. On the other hand, people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk from complications of COVID-19 may find the risks far outweigh the benefits.”
As cases continue to mount across the globe, precautions can change fast, and you need to be prepared in case your upcoming travel plans are affected by heightened advisories.
Within the U.S, California, Florida, Texas and Georgia hold the highest numbers of infection.
Highest Number of COVID-19 Cases by State
The State Department provides a helpful list of travel advisories for international travel using a level system to express risk.
- Level 1 - Exercise Normal Precautions
- Level 2 - Exercise Increased Caution
- Level 3 - Reconsider Travel
- Level 4 - Do Not Travel
Countries like Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Belize, Venezuela and the Bahamas are all considered Level 4 countries with a Do Not Travel order. Taiwan and Macau are the only Level 1 countries without heightened travel advisories.
The bottom line
Until there is a cure, the coronavirus will continue to impact how and where we can travel. Americans are still able to fly for both domestic and international travel, but the State Department and CDC urge you to take all precautions and consult travel advisories before departure.