With airlines still carrying passengers across the United States despite the coronavirus pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is offering some guidelines to use when deciding whether now is the right time to fly.
“Depending on your unique circumstances, you may choose to delay or cancel your plans," the CDC suggests.
Here are some key questions you should ask that are unique to today’s situation: What are the conditions at my destination? Is there a shelter-in-place order in effect? Is there a regional health emergency that changes ground transportation options? What amenities, necessities, that a traveler could once access without question, are still in operation where I am going?
Perhaps the biggest question is: Will I get sick at my destination?
"If COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be more likely to get infected if you travel there than if you stay home,'' the CDC advised in its posting on travel within the United States. “You should check your destination’s local health department website for more information.”
Airports themselves are considered an opportunity for the coronavirus to spread, given the sometimes tight quarters travelers find themselves in, the CDC said.
“Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19, if there are other travelers with coronavirus infection,'' the CDC said.
“The problem is if you’re standing in line or on board an airplane, you have no control over who you’re standing next to, and that’s a challenge,” said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert with Boston Medical Center and a professor at Boston University.
The CDC also noted that public transportation from airports can be a challenging health environment. "Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like coronavirus may increase in crowded settings...like buses, metro, trains,” the agency said.
The air on airplanes is not considered a high risk, but it’s best to stay away from sick passengers.
"Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily,'' the CDC said. "Although the risk of infection on an airplane is low, try to avoid contact with sick passengers and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. "
“Airplane circulation is really excellent,” Hamer said. “The problem is that a lot of the airflow is lateral, so a lot of the airflow is [either] by you or going by the seats next to you. So anybody that’s in your row or one row ahead or behind you that’s infected will put you at higher risk."
“We generally are recommending people only wear face masks if they’re symptomatic ... but if you end up near a seat in your row where somebody is coughing or sneezing, that’s a scenario where it might make sense to have a mask to help protect yourself,” he said.
Carrying alcohol-based hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to clean areas that are frequently touched on airplanes, such as the meal tray, the TV screen, the magazine pocket, and even the seat itself, could aid in the preventing the spread of the virus, he said.
Traveling by plane internationally, Hamer said, may pose a greater risk of becoming stuck in the country under a quarantine as several countries have placed travel restrictions of passengers entering.
“People should really for the present time approach especially international travel with caution and research what restrictions may be present in the country they are traveling to," Hamer said. “There’s sort of a lot of reasons not to travel, but if there’s a family emergency or another urgent need to travel, then I think it still can be considered.”
Those considered most susceptible to developing a severe case of COVID-19 — primarily the elderly ― are being urged to skip trips, if possible.
"CDC recommends that travelers at higher risk for COVID-19 complications avoid all cruise travel and nonessential air travel,'' the CDC said.
As for traveling internationally? It’s not advised.
The State Department on Thursday issued a new alert urging Americans not to travel abroad under any circumstances and to return home if they are already abroad unless they plan to remain overseas, The Associated Press reported.
The alert is not mandatory, but there are now limited transportation options for international travel. The only way to ban Americans from going abroad would be to invalidate the use of U.S. passports for such travel, a bar that is currently in place only for North Korea, the AP reported.