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Thinking about traveling again? Here’s how to assess the risks.

People are starting to commute and travel again, but no transportation mode is risk-free.

Passengers board an American Airlines flight to North Carolina at San Diego International Airport.
Masked passengers on an American Airlines flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, from San Diego, California, on May 20.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

As many states begin to ease social distancing restrictions, some Americans are starting to travel again — within their own cities, states, and beyond.

While some regions, like Los Angeles and New York City, are still under lockdown, more than half of US states have partially reopened or released plans to do so. In some parts of Georgia, Texas, Florida, and South Carolina — despite the warnings from public health experts that testing needs to increase before social distancing measures can be relaxed — residents are gradually resuming their pace of life. Across the country, more Americans are returning to work, which means many will start commuting by car, bus, train, or subway. Meanwhile, people are bound to move around and potentially travel as restrictions are loosened, even as the US faces the risk of a second wave of coronavirus infections. Those with secure jobs, vacation benefits, and disposable income will be the first to vacation leisurely again.

Still, the pandemic is far from over: The safest place you can be is at home, and for months, public health experts have recommended limiting your social interactions and staying in as much as possible, since there’s still active community spread of the virus in many areas. The US has not issued a strict domestic travel restriction, which means Americans, even those in coronavirus hot spots, could still move about and cross state borders if they needed to.

It’s unsurprising that people are generally anxious about once-crowded airports, public transit, and even ride-shares. Global travel — and the crowds that used to flow through these public spaces daily — did significantly contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. For those heading back to work or relocating for whatever reason, these places are often unavoidable. We’re in a limbo period. In the meantime, we must determine which risks are worth it while navigating this new reality.

How to assess risk while commuting or traveling

Instead of treating the risk of the coronavirus as a binary, experts are encouraging people to assess the risks involved with their daily activities. “The idea of harm reduction gives us a way of thinking about risk as a continuum and thinking about the middle ground between these two options,” Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University, told Vox’s German Lopez regarding how to weigh the risks of going out.

The same concept applies to transportation, whether it be part of a daily commute or planned vacation: Until a vaccine is developed and made widely available, there’s no clear-cut answer as to when it’ll be safe to fly or take a bus again — at least, safe in the pre-pandemic sense (even before the coronavirus, you could still catch the flu or a cold in these spaces). There are risks that come with any mode of transportation, especially if it involves strangers in close proximity to one another. What you can do is make choices that reduce these risks for yourself and others potentially traveling with you to make the experience as safe as possible.

Some of these travel tips include information health experts have reiterated for months: Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Wear a mask in an indoor public space, and avoid removing it until you’ve reached your destination. If you’re 65 or older or have underlying health conditions that increase your risk for Covid-19, you should reconsider all nonessential travel. Whenever possible, avoid crowded settings and try to keep a physical distance of at least 6 feet from people you don’t live with.

In an ideal world, most people would easily follow that advice, but on a crowded flight or public transit, social distancing might not be physically possible. So what tangible measures can people take?

“For any activity that involves leaving your house, you can measure that risk according to how much contact you’re coming into with other people,” Jared Baeten, vice dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told me. If a person has to travel, the best option would be to only interact with those in their immediate household or “bubble,” so a car trip could be one of the safer options, if you have access to a vehicle.

Public transit networks are less crowded than before, but keeping distance from others is still important

That doesn’t mean commuters should avoid public transit entirely, Baeten added. “Public transit is much safer now than it was in February everywhere in this country because of cleaning, masking, and since there are fewer people in each bus or car,” Baeten said. “All of those things make a big difference.”

Those mundane choices, like waiting for an emptier subway car, choosing an early commute time, or wearing a mask, could make a difference in terms of a person’s individual safety. On a larger scale, transit networks, airlines, long-distance buses, and trains have implemented consistent cleaning procedures, and many require passengers and crew to wear masks on board.

When it comes to the relative safety of a transportation mode, ventilation systems are crucial. Julian Tang, an associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, told CityLab that poor ventilation on crowded transit systems, citing ridership density in cities like Tokyo, London, and New York, is “the worst possible situation for both aerosol and close contact transmission.” Tang pointed to transit systems in Hong Kong and Singapore, which have good air conditioning and outdoor vents.

“They have vents going to the outside so they have fresh air coming in cool, and inside air filtered, hopefully allowing greater removal of contaminants, including viruses,” he told CityLab.

Private cars might seem safe, but travelers shouldn’t be careless in their social interactions

With all of these potential risks in mind, it would seem like private cars are easily the safest method. However, it’s difficult for experts to broadly assess how risky or safe a certain mode of transportation is, and that includes even a vehicle you own. A solo road trip, for example, can be deemed a “safe” activity, but if a person decides to eat at a crowded diner during their trip or makes multiple pit stops and interacts with strangers, those activities all increase their risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

Industry experts believe that, for the near future, travelers will gravitate toward closer trip destinations that are accessible by car. Data from the travel agency and search engine Skyscanner found that Americans are attracted to newly reopened cities like Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tampa, and are increasingly searching for car rental services.

“What you want to do, if you have to travel, is consider how to limit contact with others during this trip as much as possible so you’re not contributing to accelerating the pandemic, even when you reach a rural or vacation area,” Baeten said.

A car trip could hypothetically be safer than a flight, but a person needs to be mindful of their activities prior to and at their destination. Are they properly sheltering in place and staying put for the time being, or are they being careless in their interactions?

Given the size of the US, however, a lengthy road trip is not always possible (nor is it the safest option), which is why more Americans are starting to consider air travel again.

Flights are safer than you might think, but airlines need to take further precautions

At the start of May, only about 150,000 people passed through TSA checkpoints each day, a dismal number compared to the millions of passengers it screened daily before the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the number of daily travelers, on average, has nearly doubled in the last week of May, which suggests the demand for air travel is on the upswing, even though Covid-19 community spread is rampant in some cities.

It’s still uncertain whether public confidence in air travel will continue to improve. Recent surveys have reported conflicting data and a wide range of opinions from Americans as to when they’re willing to fly again. This uncertainty has also skewed travelers’ perceptions about what’s safe and what isn’t; according to a survey of 4,600 travelers from the consulting firm Oliver Wyman, people are more comfortable flying than with any other mode of transport besides driving themselves. For the American responders, 51 percent said they’d prefer flying compared to using ride-shares, taking public transit, dining in restaurants, and staying in a hotel.

It seems the airline industry is hopeful for any hint of recovery, after weeks of decreased demand. US carriers plan to add more flights to their schedules, and companies like Boeing and Airbus are partnering with engineers, medical experts, and academic researchers to determine the risk of disease transmission on flights. (These studies will ideally help airlines reduce in-flight health risks and possibly mitigate people’s fears about flying.)

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote that people “don’t get sick on airplanes any more than anywhere else.” It’s the travel experience overall, the crowded lines and shared surfaces with other people, that pose a risk, Allen said in a press call in mid-May.

“The point of my article is that the air exchange rate is very high [on planes],” he said. “The air goes through HEPA filters that capture 99.97 percent of airflow particles, and the air only moves within your row or a row or two beyond.”

According to Allen, if airlines require passengers to wear masks and properly space them apart, these measures will further reduce the risk of transmission during a flight. However, experts have warned that even with proper air ventilation, it’s also important to keep your distance from other people. (While most US airlines currently have policies requiring face coverings or masks, these rules aren’t necessarily enforced on board. People have also reported boarding alarmingly crowded flights during the pandemic.)

“A plane that’s packed shoulder-to-shoulder, where no one’s wearing masks, is a completely different scenario than one where people are getting temperature checked before boarding, being spread out, and wearing masks,” Baeten told me.

Airports and airlines should be taking greater precautions in spreading passengers out and sanitizing common spaces. There’s also the issue of ventilation while people are boarding planes, Allen added. “When you’re boarding … the air feels kind of stuffy and hot because the airplane’s not pulling air through the engines yet,” he said. “That can be a problem, with everybody boarding and there’s no proper ventilation system.”

In a perfect world, businesses will adhere to these standards, but many passengers — even those who, for example, call airlines ahead of time to clarify certain policies — have found that isn’t always the case. I’ve spoken with recent fliers who were alarmed that, on the day of their flight, they were seated in a packed row. Plus, there aren’t mechanisms in place for passengers to lodge a complaint that’ll be addressed, or figure out whether a plane or bus is properly ventilated.

While it’s tempting for the nation to let its guard down, experts warn that people must be vigilant about a second wave of coronavirus infections. Still, it’s difficult to convince everyone to stay indoors for an extended period of time, and “transit still has to operate, just as planes have to operate,” Baeten concluded. In this precarious “new normal,” travelers and commuters have to understand their own tolerance for risk and be mindful of taking extra precautions to ensure not just their own safety, but that of their family and community members.

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