Ask someone, “Are you going to Florida this winter?” and you won’t get a quick yes or no answer.
Listen to Susan Donnelly of Boston, and you’ll hear it’s complicated. “If we went, we would fly nonstop to a small airport. We’d choose an airline that’s keeping the middle seat open and mandating masks. We’d bring masks, face shields, and our own snacks and water, and try very hard not to use the bathroom.” Then she adds, “That said, we’re on the fence.”
Meanwhile, Barbara and Dan Archetti of Dover, New Hampshire, are heading to Sarasota after the holidays. “The idea of being cooped up here all winter — ugh!” Dan says. “We’ll practice the same safety precautions there, but at least it’ll be warmer, and we can get outdoors.”
To borrow from Jimmy Buffett, some of us will be craving a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” when the cold weather settles in — and looking to mitigate the risks. If that’s you, then here’s some (Key-lime flavored) food for thought to consider before you head south.
The Big Picture
The current advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is straightforward: “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
Even so, travel groups maintain people are dusting off their luggage. Seventy percent of US and Canadian travelers say they plan to take a vacation in 2021, according to a Travel Leaders Group survey of nearly 3,000 frequent travelers.
Florida is a perennially popular choice. A recent survey by MMGY Global, a marketing company specializing in the tour and hospitality industry, reveals that four Florida locales rank among the top 10 “dream destinations” travelers want to visit in the next two years: Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Myers/Sanibel/Captiva.
Yes, We’re Open
As of late November, the state of Florida has no travel restrictions in place. For now visitors are advised to wear face coverings if social distancing isn’t possible, but Florida doesn’t mandate their use. Businesses, including hotels and resorts, restaurants, attractions, museums, retail shops, and bars, are, as of press time, allowed to operate at full capacity. State parks and beaches are also open. Of course, all of this could change if COVID rates continue to rise sharply, so be sure to check websites for the most up-to-date information before you head out.
However, Florida is currently a COVID red zone, which means when you return to Massachusetts, you’ll be required to complete the Massachusetts Travel Form. You’ll also need to quarantine for 14 days or provide a negative COVID-19 test result administered up to 72 hours prior to arrival back in the state.
Many Florida cities, towns, and attractions have adopted their own restrictions. In the Florida Keys, for example, facial coverings are required indoors for everyone over the age of 6 — whether or not they can social distance — and they must carry a mask with them when outside their homes. Orlando requires the use of face masks in all public places, indoors and outdoors, according to a county mandate.
As for Miami-Dade County, it is issuing mask violation citations but not currently collecting fines. Masks are required at public places indoors, but not for those who are outdoors and standing at least 10 feet away from other people, or who are engaged in strenuous physical activity and practicing social distancing. Beaches are open, but no groups of more than 10 people can congregate, and bathhouses and playgrounds are closed. Facial coverings are required when one is unable to stay socially distant. A countywide curfew is in place from midnight to 6 a.m.
On Sanibel Island, face coverings are required for everyone over the age of 5 while indoors at public places and outdoors in public when proper distancing is not possible. Violators are subject to a $50 fine. Fort Myers Beach requirements apply to everyone over the age of 6: Face coverings must be worn indoors and outdoors in public places.
Hop a Flight
Current guidance suggests that airplanes are not the toxic cylinders we thought they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Most airlines are using hospital-grade disinfectants, and filtering air with HEPA technology that reportedly removes 99.97 percent of airborne particles.
A recent article published on the JAMA Network concluded that the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train, acknowledging that “there is relatively little airflow forward and backward between rows, making it less likely to spread respiratory particles between rows.”
The CDC agrees that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”
Still, wear a mask, don’t travel if you feel unwell, and keep a distance from others wherever possible. Other recommendations include turning the overhead air nozzle to full blast and pointing it straight at your head and remaining seated if possible.
Meanwhile, these are heady times for deal seekers who aren’t afraid to fly. One consequence of the pandemic: Airlines are experimenting with their excess capacity to try new point-to-point routes, says Daniel Burnham of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a 2 million-plus member e-mail service that researches the best airline deals. United recently started selling seasonal nonstop flights from Boston to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Tampa, and Orlando, competing heavily with Delta and JetBlue on these routes, he notes. The result: amazing airfare deals. “Expect to find these routes on sale for less than $100 round-trip if your dates are flexible — and if you’re heading to Orlando, there are plenty of dates pricing at $41 [one-way] through the end of February 2021,” Burnham says.
Another big shift is increased flexibility. “Nearly all domestic flights have change waivers in place which allow travelers to adjust their travel dates or cancel their flights and receive an airline credit for future use,” Burnham says. Read the terms carefully because they vary by airline.
Safety protocols also vary by airline. Some carriers, such as Delta, are currently blocking middle seats, and limiting the number of passengers on planes without middle seat configurations. Some are boarding from the back of the plane to the front to decrease contact among passengers. They all require that face coverings be worn during the flight, except while eating and drinking. Still other airlines will upgrade to larger aircraft when demand is high. Each airline’s website details their specific COVID-19 policies; read before you book.
Once you’ve committed, Burnham suggests minimizing your time in the airport terminal by checking in online, traveling with carry-on luggage, and checking TSA checkpoint wait times online so you can arrive closer to your departure time.
Or, Hit the Road
Remember when you were a Red Bull-fueled twentysomething spring breaker?
Road trips can be fun. Yes, it’s a long drive to Florida — about 22 hours from Boston to Miami, not including stops. But you gain control of the situation. You can choose to follow CDC guidelines for safe car travel, such as cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, keeping windows open for ventilation, and bringing a cooler with food and drinks to avoid making stops.
Just be sure to factor in that you’ll be spending a night or two in a hotel or motel, upping your risk factor.
Gotta Eat, Gotta Sleep
One good thing: Many restaurants in the Sunshine State offer outdoor dining, which medical experts say is a safer option. But there are other things to consider. Are crowds bellying up to the bar? Is the waitstaff unmasked? Are they reusing menus? If the place doesn’t meet your standards, move on. There are plenty of choices.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which represents businesses across the state, has adopted its own safety and sanitation guidelines. Look for establishments displaying the FRLA Seal of Commitment logo.
Many major hotel brands, including Loews, Best Western, Hilton, Hyatt, Disney hotels, and others, have adopted the American Hotel and Lodging Association Stay Safe guidelines. Some of these include public mask wearing, hand sanitization stations, enhanced cleaning procedures, limited or contactless check-in and checkout, removal of things like magazines and brochures, and limited pool, gym, restaurant, lobby, and elevator capacities.
Check individual property websites for specific safety protocols, and then follow-up with a phone call to inquire about their procedures. This works for both restaurants and lodging establishments.
Still not comfortable with staying at a hotel or eating out? Many travelers are opting for private, short-term rentals. According to AllTheRooms Analytics, a provider of short-term rental data, Florida’s short-term rentals, as of October, have rebounded to 96 percent of October 2019 levels (which is a lot better than overall hotel occupancy rates in the state).
Two major players in the private rental industry, VRBO and Airbnb, have adopted enhanced cleaning and safety guidelines. Airbnb listings now show whether the host has implemented enhanced cleaning guidelines and adopted the company’s COVID-19 safety practices, including requiring all guests and hosts to wear masks and practice social distancing. VRBO provides guidelines for disinfecting high-touch surfaces, offering contact-free check-in, building in time between bookings to avoid back-to-back stays, and stocking antibacterial hand-wash solution, cleaners, and hand sanitizers for guests. Check the “Cleaning Practices” section of a VRBO property listing before renting.
What Would Mickey Do?
Ah, for the escapism of the Magic Kingdom! Orlando’s parks reopened this summer, and there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks traceable to the theme parks so far, according to Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.
To keep it that way, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have implemented temperature checks, installed plexiglass dividers, increased sanitation, and instituted capacity limits. Character encounters are distanced now, so there will be no hugs with Goofy or selfies with Snow White. Instead of a holiday parade, Disney will do festive projections on Cinderella Castle. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
“Disney had a good handle on the precautions,” in the opinion of Beth Waite of Brookline, New Hampshire, who visited Walt Disney World Resort in July. “It held the most Disney magic it could during these times. And lines were nonexistent. You see a side of the park that you typically don’t see.” She’s been back to Orlando two times since.
Finally . . .
Ultimately, most of us just want to survive the winter with a little joy (and a lot more heat!). So, if you go, stay safe, and have a blast.
“I really needed a hit of fun and escape,” Waite says. “So, we went for it, took precautions, and felt pretty safe the whole time.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright are frequent contributors to the Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.