With states across the country issuing instructions for residents to stay at home to help curb the coronavirus outbreak, readers from Atlanta to central Oregon e-mailed with questions about whether it is safe to travel by car. Over the phone, via e-mail, and in text messages, we asked experts in epidemiology and infectious diseases for answers — and what precautions you should take, if you must hit the road, to stay safe from infection.
“It’s not necessarily about getting in the car,” said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, a global health physician and vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s global health committee. “What really matters is what you’re going to do when you get somewhere.”
Q: With the new travel restrictions, are people allowed to drive to a different state? Will there be problems coming back?
A: As far as whether travel by car is permitted, that is determined by where you live. For example, Puerto Rico, a US territory that has stringent restrictions in place, prohibits residents from going anywhere besides the supermarket or pharmacy after 9 p.m. — or risk a $5,000 fine or six months in jail.
Be sure to know your state’s rules and if you want to travel out of state, and those of your destination and any states you must travel through.
“Given the strain we already have on our health care systems we don’t want people flocking to one place, getting sick, and then placing even more of a strain on the health care system” there, Kuppalli said, noting examples of people traveling to Hawaii, where additional illnesses would add undue strain to the state’s already overburdened system.
First consider why you want to travel.
“Traveling longer distances by car is not advisable right now, unless it is of a more urgent nature,” said Rachel Patzer, an epidemiologist and director of health services research at Emory University School of Medicine. “If it is far enough that it requires you to refuel or stop for food, this may be more difficult to practice social distancing and could put you or others at risk.”
Moreover, she said, “If you got sick and were far away from home it may be important for you to know where to go to get care, which may be more difficult if you are on the road traveling.”
Q: I need to drive a far distance, but the trip is in only one state. Is that OK?
A: Again, traveling short distances are better than long ones, even if you’re not leaving the state, Patzer said.
Q: I am in my 30s and healthy, and my son lives 150 miles away. He is 11 and healthy. Is it safe to travel to go pick him up?
A: “I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to travel to go pick him up,” Kuppalli said, adding that the reader should clean out the car first. “I would be more concerned about the family he is planning on visiting. How old are they? Do they have medical conditions? What types of plans do they have for the visit? These are the things you need to think about.”
Important to note: Symptoms may be mild among young children, but “they can transmit their infections to others.”
Just remember there are exceptions to the rule to stay close to home. “One example of appropriate longer-distance travel is a one-time trip to go stay with a loved one who needs your help — such as an elderly grandparent who needs assistance during the outbreak,” Patzer said. “Or to pick up a child from college.”
Q: What about going on shorter trips?
A: Even on a short ride, you should still practice social distancing — meaning you should stay about 6 feet away from the people around you. And be sure that if the trip involves seeing other people, that you are socializing with only “a select few” and that they have agreed “to only visit with you.”
Of course, if you are in an area that has issued a shelter in place order, even short trips within your state would be advised [only] if they are urgent. (For example, administering medications or bringing food to a shut-in.)
No matter the restrictions where you are, you should limit even necessary travel as much as possible, Patzer added.
“We all need to go to the grocery store and get food,” she said. “And that is another opportunity for crowds and exposure. It would be wise to try to limit the number of grocery runs. Where in the past maybe you went every other day, try to just go once a week or once every other week and plan ahead for what you might need.”
Q: What is the best method of travel, if you need to go somewhere and don’t have a car?
A: Public transportation is more risky than a shared car service because there are “many more opportunities for exposure,” Patzer said. However, if you can’t afford another form of transportation, then be sure to practice social distancing, avoid touching surfaces and your face, and bring along some hand sanitizer.
A shared car service should be avoided for visiting friends and other less urgent matters, but for vital trips, taking an Uber or Lyft is “likely low risk” and preferable to using public transportation from a public health standpoint, Patzer said.
“Both driver and rider should take precautions because there are still some risks of transmission since the driver and passenger are within close quarters,” she said. Those precautions include the general recommendations — use hand sanitizer and avoid touching your face — and for the driver, wiping down interior surfaces between rides.
The dangers of taking a cab were outlined in a story of a Chinese woman in Bangkok who took one to the hospital. The driver later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Q: Any final advice?
A: “I understand this is scary for many people,” Kuppalli said. But don’t panic.
“People are driving themselves nuts thinking about things I don’t even think about,” she said, adding: “And I think about this all the time.”
She noted that people needed to follow county recommendations and wash their hands before touching their faces. And no matter what: “I wouldn’t get in the car with anyone who’s sick.”