Jordan: I went on vacation last month. I left my home province and we traveled 692.6 kilometres to a farm in another province. That’s roughly 690 kilometres further than I’d travelled from my front door in the past five months. And it was lovely. We were on a farm in the middle of nowhere with nobody but family. It was the furthest from COVID-19 I’d felt since this whole thing began. But getting there, and especially planning to get there, that was awful. We had so many questions. We were definitely not confident enough to fly. So we rented a car, but how can we make sure the car has been properly sanitized? What do we need to pack so we can avoid unnecessary contact with other people, both on the way there and once we arrive? Where can we stop along the way? Is it safe? Is it safe to use the bathrooms there? What about grabbing fast food takeout from roadside service stations? Do I have to mask up and glove up just to get out of the car and fill the gas tank? And these questions went on and on. Now we’ve been back for more than two weeks and we’re all fine. But it turns out that during the first four months of this, we developed our own routine for being safe, or at least for feeling safe, and traveling just blows that out of the water. But unless you never want to see any loved ones, except those who live in your city limits, you’re probably going to travel during COVID too. Maybe you already have, maybe you’re planning a trip right now. So today what’s safe? What isn’t? What’s an acceptable level of risk? What can you expect on a road trip at a camp site, on a train trip or on a flight? And what about a cruise? Oh my God. No, I’m kidding. Don’t take a cruise. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Colleen Stinchcombe is a freelance writer who spoke to three epidemiologists and asked them all sorts of questions about travelling during a pandemic. Hi Colleen.
Jordan: Have you gone anywhere since March?
Colleen: I have gone camping.
Jordan: Did you feel safe?
Colleen: Yeah, it was actually a good time. Most of the other campers were masked up, and everyone was outdoors. So of all the things that definitely felt the most safe.
Jordan: Do we have a sense at all, and I realized we totally might not, of the scale of travel now? Are people back on the roads and planes and trains, et cetera? Or is it anywhere close to the level it was previously?
Colleen: Yeah, so air travel seems to be going up. According to the TSA website, which I looked at this morning, back in April, only around a hundred thousand people were flying a day. That was sort of the height of the shutdown, at least in the United States. And right now more like 500,000 to 700,000 people are traveling per day. But last year, it was closer to two and a half million. So overall air travel is still down, but it has increased since the biggest shutdown. As far as other forms of travel, I mean, anecdotally, I can tell you that I am seeing people in my feed going on road trips, and certainly people are writing a lot of articles about RVers and other people going on domestic travel trips.
Jordan: Yeah, that’s about what we’ve done as a family, since this began. A couple of road trips to farm/ cottage areas. But if people are going to travel, and it seems like, you know, you can’t keep people locked down forever, what did the doctors you spoke to say as the safest way?
Colleen: Yeah, so, I mean, they definitely emphasize that not traveling is still the safest thing to do. But if people are going to travel, any mode of travel that keeps you away from people who are not in your household, especially in indoor scenarios, is going to be the safest. So a road trip is a good example of that. You’re, you know, cordoned off from other people, and you have a lot of control over when you stop and where you stop.
Jordan: How do you handle those stops? I mean, depending on the length of trip, you’re going to have to at least stop to use the bathroom. Is it safe to get food from, you know, the Wendy’s or Burger King at the roadside diner, et cetera, et cetera?
Colleen: Yeah, again, with the experts I spoke to the risk is mostly about coming into contact with other people or places where someone has maybe just been, especially indoors, like a public restroom. So the more you can limit those places, the better. They also emphasized , if you are going to use a public restroom, do use a mask. I personally had questions about that. I’ve written articles about the bacterial plume that comes out of toilets when they’re flushed. And I was like, well, do you want that on your mask? And basically what they said was, while that’s possible, coronavirus has been found in fecal matter, you’re a lot safer wearing the mask into a public restroom. Ideally a single stall restroom, but it’s really about how many people are in there. Personally, if there was a line of people waiting for the bathroom, I might try to go down the road a little further. And as far as food, one of the experts I spoke to said she recommended against dining indoors. So as much as you can bring food with you or do take out and then picnic outside somewhere, that’s going to be your safest option.
Jordan: And in terms of just who’s in your car, I mean, ideally it’s your bubble, your family bubble. But if you’re traveling with someone who is not in that bubble, because presumably you can distance when you arrive masks on obviously, windows open, anything else?
Colleen: I mean, not really. So the answer is basically that a car can be considered an indoor space. So you are going to be increasing your risk. Windows down, might help, and masks on may help, but ultimately you are increasing your risk by being in an enclosed space with someone outside your household.
Jordan: So they just say, don’t do that.
Colleen: Don’t do that if your goal is to be as safe as possible.
Jordan: Is the train any safer than flying? I realize that a car is safer because you’re controlling who’s there, but is that any different?
Colleen: Maybe. It might be safer than flying. In theory, you have more options on a train as far as moving seats or moving to a less busy train car. You might be able to have more control over staying six feet away from people. But there’s still risk involved for sure and it really depends on how busy the train is.
Jordan: Do we know, and I realize we’re probably not going to get into discussing individual train lines because you’re in America and we’re in Canada, but you know, have you seen any guarantees from any companies about, we’re going to make sure there’s a couple of rows in between you and the next person? Because, you know, I can’t seem to find any clear answers on that.
Colleen: I haven’t been able to find that as far as trains either. The last I checked, which admittedly was a couple of weeks ago, Amtrak was requiring, and I know we’re getting into specifics here, but Amtrak was requiring masks, which is a move in the right direction. But I haven’t seen much as far as distance between people.
Jordan: And what about flying? What’s the risk level, I guess? Is this one of those, like, should be emergencies only? Do we have a sense of what your chances are?
Colleen: We don’t have a sense of what your chances are. That’s sort of the dream, right? It would be nice to know exactly what your risk was. But the experts that I spoke to basically said that of all the modes of travel flying is the riskiest. I mean, airplanes on the one hand have really excellent filtration systems, which helps to get the virus out of the air. But if someone is in the road next to you, in front of you or behind you, the air filtration system isn’t going to be well to prevent that. I will say, in the United States at least, we were pretty slow to require masks for airlines. But that is starting to change. I was just reading that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are now requiring mass for all passengers above the age of two. That’s helpful. So I would suggest if someone is considering flying, look into your airline’s policy for masks, what their policy is around seating, and also what their policy is around flight capacity. On the other hand, just because someone requires a mask on the plane, at least in the United States, we’re having a lot of issues with people being pretty indignant about keeping them on. So, you know, unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee that people will keep them on.
Jordan: Now we’re kind of getting into psychology, but I noticed that you spoke to the epidemiologists about it too, and they’re good at conveying public health messages, right? So what do they suggest that you do in that situation? Because everybody’s been in it or gonna find themselves in it.
Colleen: I mean, unfortunately there’s not a whole lot you can do, especially with someone who is being indignant, rather than just, you know, maybe they forgot to put it back on. I did ask them, you know, what would you recommend saying to someone who maybe their mask is below their nose or I’m not quite right, and they said if you feel comfortable, you can gently ask them to properly put it on. But it’s scary. It’s something that anybody who’s in the public sphere is dealing with right now. And there’s not a whole lot you can do if someone’s being aggressive about it.
Jordan: What else can you do yourself? I mean, obviously do your research and make sure you know what you’re getting into, but when you get into an airplane, like sanitize, wipe down, what are best practices?
Colleen: I got mixed messages on that. You can wipe down. More and more it sounds like the epidemiologists are getting less concerned about touching surfaces and more concerned about breathing on each other. So it certainly doesn’t hurt to wipe something down, although one epidemiologist was concerned that you might end up contaminating yourself by touching those surfaces on purpose. But I mean, yeah, if you’re going to sit down and it’s a flat space where you’re going to put your cell phone, it’s worth wiping that area down. Beyond that, I mean, it’s really just keeping your mask on as much as possible. I asked about, you know, should you be avoiding a snack or drinking water? And the answer to that was basically, you know, if you can, do it, but obviously you have to attend to your basic human needs.
Jordan: I assume that’s the same protocol for using the airplane bathroom.
Colleen: Essentially, yes.
Jordan: I know I’m jumping around a bit now, but you asked a ton of questions, and then we kind of crowdsourced some of our own from our team. Once you arrive, however you get there, what’s the difference between Airbnb and hotels, and what’s recommended?
Colleen: Either is an option. There were a few concerns that came up with the experts that I spoke to. One expert mentioned that, hotels don’t necessarily clean linens entirely between guests, which would be a concern for transmission.
Jordan: I’m concerned about that now, just in general. Never mind the pandemic. What?
Colleen: Yeah. I mean, so I didn’t talk to any hotels to have them confirm or deny that, but that’s something to ask, because you know, that’s something that’s going to be very difficult for you to change out when you get there, right? You might not have access to a laundry machine. So it’s worth asking what that protocol is. Another concern is just public spaces in hotels. So a hotel bar, the check-in desk, and especially areas like an elevator where it’s really tight quarters, and it might be your only way in and out of the building. I asked about using the stairs and she was like, that might work if you’re on the third floor. If you’re on the 15th floor, less ideal. So all those things are things to keep in mind. When choosing the hotel you’re going to, you should ask about their policies for cleaning. The nice thing about an Airbnb is that a lot of the times it’s a single house. Maybe a few floors high, but for the most part single level. The other nice thing about Airbnb is you might have more access to open the windows. And that was something that they recommended asking your host to do in advance. And if not, then to open them when you get there, just to get some fresh air into the Airbnb. Contactless check in is definitely ideal. You can wipe down high touch surfaces when you get there as well.
Jordan: What about when you’re planning a vacation? Is there any easy way to tell, you know, how empty a plane will be? Or if you show up and it looks like, Oh my God, this plane is packed, is there an easy way– like, are these services still going on where companies will let you like switch your ticket? I know they were happening at the beginning.
Colleen: Mhmm. Yeah, I haven’t really done much reporting on that, so I don’t have a great answer. The Points Guy had a good article on this. It sounds like you can call an airline in advance to try and get a sense of what the bookings look like. Don’t rely on the seat map, and also know that things can change pretty quickly. I really imagine at this point it would depend on the airline as far as whether or not you can switch your ticket, but I don’t know for sure.
Jordan: Did you hear anything from any of the epidemiologists you spoke to about, you know, what kind of mask will actually work for you? I know that, you know, for every day outings to the grocery store, a cloth mask is probably fine. But in terms of like, you know, I’ve seen people are going through airports wearing like things that look like gas masks with respirators on them.
Colleen: So I haven’t done any reporting on the respirators myself. The experts that I spoke to were almost always dealing with either cloth masks or one of them was pretty enthusiastic in another article that I wrote about face shields. My understanding is that PPE is still limited in the United States, and so we’re being asked to reserve the heavier duty things like N95 masks for healthcare workers. As far as glasses, if there’s something you can wear that would help you keep from touching your eyes, that might be worthwhile. They didn’t recommend goggles to me or anything like that. They might be more wholeheartedly recommended in the future, but at this point they weren’t really pushing for that. But one thing that came up over and over and over was that the PPE that you’re wearing, like the homemade masks, it’s really more about protecting other people. To protect yourself, the best tool we have is physical distancing.
Jordan: I realize that the next question I was about to ask you, which was about travelling to other countries, you might not be able to answer, cause I don’t know if there’s anywhere you guys are allowed to travel right now.
Colleen: We’re stuck!
Jordan: I didn’t mean to say that in a mean way. But one of our producers has a partner in Mexico who he hasn’t seen since this whole thing began. And so he’s trying to, one of the impetus for this episode, is he’s trying to plan a trip to be as safe as possible, because it’s been months. And one of his questions is, what do you do if you feel like you might be getting COVID in another country where you might not even speak the language well?
Colleen: Yeah. I mean, I really feel for him. It’s tough. I will say that basically you should be prepared to quarantine in place if you get sick while you’re abroad, and having funds set aside to do that would be key as well as any travel health insurance that covers coronavirus.
Jordan: What was the most counterintuitive thing, and I realize I might be putting you on the spot, that you heard from these experts about travelling?
Colleen: I think I was surprised that they were pretty open to the idea of road trips and camping. I say that, in Washington state, most of the campgrounds at this point are, are booked solid. So at this point, you know, there’s not a whole lot of campgrounds still left to go to. But I guess I expected them to be the fun police a little bit more. And instead they were like, you know, there are safe ways to do this. It’s really about avoiding other people. And so if you can get out and do that, then okay.
Jordan: Did you feel a safer– I mean, I know you went camping, so obviously, hopefully you did– but did you feel in general a more or less alarmed by the prospect of your next big trip after you finished this piece?
Colleen: I basically felt like there are ways that I can travel that don’t impact me or other people in a negative way. And that was helpful. But I also really– I mean, I was a travel writer before all of this started happening. And so I basically came to terms with the fact that I won’t be going on any extensive non-domestic trips for the foreseeable future.
Jordan: Yeah. What do you think of that industry is going to look like?
Colleen: Gosh, I have no idea. I imagine people are going to want to travel pretty eagerly when things start moving again, but I think it’s going to be a while. I think it’s going to be at least the end of 2021. Which, at least here Dr. Fauci was saying that we’ll have a billion vaccines by then, but there’s a lot more than a billion people in the world. So it might be later.
Jordan: I wonder if you get a discount for booking a 2021– late 2021 trip now? Somebody has got to be willing to take your money.
Colleen: Yeah. Yeah. I bet you do.
Jordan: Colleen, thank you so much for walking us through this today. I appreciate it.
Colleen: Yeah. Thank you so much.
Jordan: That was Coleen Stinchcombe. And that was The Big Story. If you want more big stories, they’re at the website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. We are as always available by email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And finally, if you could be so kind to subscribe and rate and review on your podcast platform of choice, we would be overjoyed to see those there. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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