A Virologist’s Opinion on Road Trip Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A digital sign says Stay Home on the side of an empty road. Road trip covid-19.
Logan Weaver, unsplash.com

It’s hard to think about travel since most of the world is still under a partial quarantine. The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused countries around the world to shut their borders to foreign travelers, and traveling by plane has become complicated and time-consuming. However, as states within the US start to reopen and restrictions on local travel are lifted, people are considering travel by car or RV as a safe alternative to flying. Recent data suggests that many American’s are more likely to travel by car and take a road trip after COVID-19 passes. 

I wanted to get an expert’s opinion on the current state of road trip travel in the United States, so I reached out to the highly regarded infectious disease virologist who has spent the past decade studying infectious diseases, Dr. Shannon Bennett. Dr. Bennett is the Chief of Science at the California Academy of Sciences, and was the Academy’s first-ever Associate Curator of Microbiology, helping broaden the Academy’s research scope to include a dedicated focus on viruses and bacteria. Her specialty lies in infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. I was very excited to get a response from Dr. Bennett, and I hope this article provides valuable information for those of you who are considering taking a road trip in the coming months after the COVID-19 outbreak slows down.

A Q&A with Dr. Bennett on road trip travel during the COVID-19 outbreak:

Question: Do you think we are at a point in the Pandemic where it is safe to travel with a small group (< 6 people) by car?

Answer (Dr. Shannon Bennett)I don’t think that we are at this point yet, as long as shelter-in-place is the recommended course of action. Even if the small group is restricted to your identified family members with whom you are sheltering-in-place with, during a road trip you need to use services as you travel, such as take out, markets, bathrooms, gas stations, charging stations, presumably at a greater rate then if you were staying at home. Each point is an interaction with non-family members and a potential risk for sharing virus. Also, I’m assuming that we are discussing within-state versus across-state travel, but note that different counties, as well as different states, have different policies and thresholds for invoking shelter-in-place. If you travel to a county (or a state) that has “opened up” early, without the right protections in place (e.g. broad testing, contact tracing, social distancing measures, PPE for health care settings and other hotspots), then you place yourself at risk. If you travel to a county (or state) that shut down earlier and is still shut down, then you could put their population at risk. However, WHEN shelter-in-place is lifted, road trips in small family groups where you could also practice safety measures with outside-family interactions (e.g., maintain a social distance of 6 feet, wear a mask, wash hands frequently, clean surfaces frequently) should be totally doable. 

Question: Do you think it is safe to camp outdoors (with social distancing in place)?

Answer (Dr. Shannon Bennett)At this time, camping outside is safe so long as it is not at a node/place shared with multiple families/public. For example, camping on your private property, with your family group, is fine. Camping at a place where other families/public can gather as well is not adherent to the spirit of sheltering-in-place with your family members. Everyone would be using the same water spigots, washrooms, trash/recycling collectors, parking if it is a walk-in site, and other facilities – I’m sure that campgrounds are mostly closed except for self-contained “residents,” or they should be. Once shelter-in-place ends and campgrounds begin to open up, then safe practices such as point 1 should be fine.

Question: What are the major hazards you could see happening if people start to take road trips right now (or within a month)?

Answer (Dr. Shannon Bennett)I kind of outlined this in point 1 – the main hazard is that people would start moving the virus around across the landscape, via interaction points that are occurring at a higher frequency then if we stayed local, and involving more interactions/more people from more places. For example, let’s say a local small market past Placerville, on the way to the Sierras, is currently only receiving local patronage at about 5 people per hour and all those people live in the same town and interact with mostly their family members, so maybe their interaction sphere is another 5 people each. Then let’s say people start taking road trips. My family and I drive first to our local gas station in Marin (nothing new here, but we’ve only been filling up 1x per month so this is sooner than we normally would but we want a full tank); we leave early, stop at the Nut Tree past Vallejo to get take out lunch (interaction sphere an extra 20 people from Vallejo plus many other places), stop at another gas station in a couple of hours to fill up, go pee and get cold drinks (new and larger interaction sphere), stop at the local market in Placerville to get supplies before heading into the mountains. That local market’s interaction sphere just spiked up to include many many more people from the coast to the mountains. Until we are better able to test for infecteds, contact trace their interaction spheres, and strategically quarantine their interactions, it is too risky to start taking road trips. 

Question: Do you think it makes sense to open National parks this summer?

Answer (Dr. Shannon Bennett)Obviously they should NOT be opened until shelter-in-place is lifted (unless to local foot/bike traffic and with all shared facilities closed), but then after shelter-in-place is lifted, I would say that we cannot consider opening National Parks until we have mechanisms in place to meter the use to make some level of social distancing possible, as well as to mitigate any exchange of virus on shared facilities, such as washrooms, etc. 

Question: If national parks and state parks do allow camping what kind of protocols do you think should be in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Answer (Dr. Shannon Bennett)I think it will be important to allow for social distancing by metering/reducing the overall number of campers, spacing out campsites, reducing the use of shared facilities, e.g., parking is limited, washrooms limited to specific sets of campsites, same with water spigots, trails/beaches are limited/metered, and cleaning shared facilities/surfaces frequently.

Dr. Shannon Bennett: Please note, I am not a public health professional, so this is only my perspective as an infectious disease virologist. At the end of the day, my opinion is always secondary to that of health care and public health official recommendations.

Thank you for reading! I hope you gained some valuable information about the outlook for road trip travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Special thanks to Dr. Bennett for taking the time to answer these questions. If you’d like to read more about her research you can find that here, and follow her on Twitter. In the meantime please remember to stay safe and follow your local health official’s guidelines. 

Closing takeaways:

#1 – Check with your local public health guidelines before taking a road trip.

#2 – Practice safety measures. (Maintaining a social distance of 6 feet, wear a mask, wash hands frequently, clean surfaces frequently.)

#3 – Until we are better able to test for people who are infected, contact trace their interaction spheres, and strategically quarantine their interactions, it is too risky to start taking road trips. 

In the meantime if your city is still under stay home orders, you can check out our travel guides and daydream about taking a road trip to Joshua Tree, Yosemite National ParkSan Francisco Bay AreaLake Tahoe, and Los Angeles.

Are you planning on taking a road trip this summer (once public health officials allow it)? Leave a comment below.

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