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CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

When will it be safe to travel again? Here’s what the experts say

It comes down to the behavior of the people, the behavior of the virus, and the pace of vaccinations.

A passenger arrived for an American Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport on Feb. 5 in Chicago. American Airlines and United Airlines, two of the nation’s largest carriers, are anticipating having to furlough thousands of employees as both companies continue to see a pandemic-related slow-down in air travel.
A passenger arrived for an American Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport on Feb. 5 in Chicago. American Airlines and United Airlines, two of the nation’s largest carriers, are anticipating having to furlough thousands of employees as both companies continue to see a pandemic-related slow-down in air travel.Scott Olson/Getty

The temptation is real. Airlines are offering incredible deals on flights and vacation packages. Vaccinations have begun, and the COVID-19 positivity rate is slowly dipping. A fatigued country wants to know: Could it possibly be time to think about booking travel? Is spring break or summer vacation within our grasp?

Epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors are urging people to hold off, while those who represent the travel industry say that with proper precautions travel is safe. In other words, the answer is as elusive as the virus itself. But the prevailing school of thought from the medical experts we spoke with is that some form of travel might return this summer. Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly.

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“The first thing people really have to understand is that science is a dynamic of change, and this pandemic is a dynamic of change as well,” said Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi, an ER physician and Obama administration biodefense appointee. “Yes, we have the vaccines, the cavalry is coming. However, the enemy is changing and shifting and mutating. We have these multiple variants, and if we’re not wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing, the more the variants will spread. Then we’ll need another set of boosters.”

It is, as Fagbuyi says, a shape-shifting logistical nightmare. The behavior of people, the behavior of the virus, and the pace of vaccinations will determine when we can return to travel.

“So when would be a reasonable time to start traveling safely?” he said. “It’s probably no time soon.”

Those words sting for a populace aching to dust off its suitcases and flee from the cold and omnipresent February snow. Especially when those people are filled with COVID fatigue and, at the same time, being bombarded with e-mails touting cheap flights to Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Central America. It’s like putting a bowl of tuna in front of a cat, and then yelling at it for trying to chow down.

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“If you’re talking about people being enticed by cheap spring break travel right now, they’re at very real risk of becoming part of the impetus of creating another surge before the winter’s out,” said Mark Cameron, associate professor of population and quantitative health science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The reason why that’s likely is because the vaccine is not going to be helping us in the short term. So if we want summer vacations as an option, we’re going to need to stick it out through the winter before hitting those enticing travel deals.”

Summer, if current trends stay on course, could be when the CDC finally removes from its website the dreaded paragraph that says it “recommends that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” The words, which have been on the website for nearly a year, are like a stinging slap for everyone suffering from a bad case of wanderlust.

Travelers seem to be hedging their bets on a summer trip. New data from Cambridge-based Hopper, a company that tracks flight demand and pricing, found that flight searches for midsummer travel (July 15 to Aug. 15) experienced a 100 percent increase over the past two weeks.

Despite that demand, don’t expect to see travel return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, or even 2022. A study from IPX1031, a company that handles vacation rentals, found that only 48 percent of Americans are optimistic about travel in 2021. That same percentage also said they would feel comfortable flying on a plane in 2021. More than half of Americans (54 percent) said they won’t feel comfortable traveling until they are vaccinated.

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Many who work in travel, an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic, feel as if their livelihood has been unfairly maligned and contend that with proper protocols, travel can be safe.

“Rigorous scientific studies by both Harvard and the Department of Defense found the risk of onboard transmission, especially when compared to other routine activities, has remained extremely low throughout the pandemic,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and travel at the US Travel Association. “Especially given the other ways the virus is spread.”

In a 2019 report, the World Travel & Tourism Council found that travel contributed $8.9 trillion toward the world’s GDP and employed to 330 million people.

“Generally speaking, we think that the risk of COVID-19 transmission while flying is particularly low given other ways that the virus is being spread,” Barnes said. “All travel businesses, whether it’s an airline or an airport or a hotel, have very stringent health and safety practices. As an industry, we have been very much pushing the critical social responsibility of wearing a mask and sanitation procedures since the start of the pandemic.”

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She said if people are comfortable traveling and follow rules and protocols, they should do so.

“There are studies that show it is safer to travel than doing some routine activities, like going to the grocery store,” she said.

Travel blogger Jessica Nabongo, who is the first Black woman to travel to every country in the world, also maintains that traveling is safe when done properly. She has cut back on her travels dramatically through the pandemic, but is still on the road. She is regularly tested, maintains social distancing, stays away from large gatherings, and wears a mask.

“You can take protocols to keep yourself safe,” said Nabongo, a travel writer and influencer who runs the website Catch Me If You Can. “But you have to understand that you will be around people who may not follow the same protocols. So for me, what does that mean? It means I’m going to travel with an airline that’s going to have social distancing on flights, like Delta. I think the biggest thing is understanding what your risk tolerance is and creating boundaries that make sense for you.”

Personal risk aversion aside, infectious disease doctors maintain that despite the temptation, this is not the time to be purchasing tickets and making plans, particularly with new, more contagious variants of the virus spreading in the United States.

“I know that everyone is tired because we keep telling them not to travel,” said infectious disease doctor Diego Hijano. “But now is not the time to be traveling, foreign or domestic, with these new strains. There’s so much we don’t know. I don’t know what summer is going to look like, but I would hope that by after the summer there will be enough people vaccinated that we can start planning trips.”

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‘“I know that everyone is tired because we keep telling them not to travel. But now is not the time to be traveling, foreign or domestic.”’

Dr. Diego Hijano

But Hijano warns that even when it is safe to start planning summer or post-summer travel, expect many of the same safety measures, such as social distancing, masks, and frequent hand washing, to remain in place. Coronavirus will still be a part of our lives. Like 9/11, COVID-19 will profoundly change the way we travel moving forward.

But at least there is a goal post in sight. If vaccinations continue and positivity rates decrease, there’s a very real chance that some form of travel could return in the summer or fall. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.