Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: How to Travel Safely During Covid-19

Photo: Andreas Zitlau/EyeEm/Getty Images

These questions are adapted from Medium’s Coronavirus Blog.

What does safe travel look like during a pandemic? Here are some expert opinions on planes, cars, bike-shares, and more.

If I need to travel, is it better to take a plane or car?

The pandemic has thrown a wrench into the summer plans of people around the world. Right now, many places have stay-at-home orders in place that largely restrict travel. However, as states begin lifting these restrictions, or as people need to move, there are questions about the safest way to do so. Is it better to take a road trip but risk stops along the way? Or is it better to take an airplane and spend hours in tight quarters with strangers?

“Any form of travel at this current time in the Covid-19 pandemic involves risk,” says Jill Weatherhead, MD, an assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Knowing the most up-to-date information regarding the virus and travel restrictions is critical.”

Weatherhead points out that taking public forms of transportation like buses, trains, or planes can undoubtedly mean close exposure to more people in different areas of the country. “While waiting within airports, bus spots, and train stations, as well as while riding in planes, buses, and trains, practice social distancing as much as possible. Disinfecting highly touched surfaces, such as seats, trays, arm rests, and wearing a facial covering may help reduce viral transmission during travel,” she says.

What about the lack of airflow on a plane? “Modern planes are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which filter particles from recycled air, reducing risk of viral spread through the air,” Weatherhead says. “However, it won’t necessarily prevent droplet or contaminated surface transmission of the virus if in close contact with sick individuals.”

Robin Patel, MD, president of the American Society for Microbiology, takes a stronger stance on flying. “Traveling in your own car, either by yourself or with members of your household, is certainly safer than traveling by airplane right now in terms of acquiring Covid-19,” she says. “Even with physical distancing measures on an airplane, there is a risk of exposure to Covid-19 due to the sheer number of people not from the same household sharing the same space.”

Patel says that because Covid-19 can be spread from people without symptoms or people who haven’t yet developed symptoms, there’s no easy way to know who might by carrying it. “Having air travelers wear a mask, properly cleaning surfaces in airports and on planes, and washing your hands regularly can help, of course, but if you’re alone or with others from your household in your own car, there’s really little risk of acquiring Covid-19 there. It’s pretty much like being at home.”

Weatherhead says that while driving may reduce close contact with large groups of people, “Driving requires frequent stops with exposures at restaurants, rest stops, and gas stations.” Her advice: “Ensure everyone in the car is from the same household. Reducing stops and washing hands regularly may also prevent spread of infection while on road trips.”

The bottom line is any transportation comes with a set of risks, especially if you’re attempting to travel across states or for a long period of time. In some cases, the distance may make the decision easier. In any situation, try to stay spread apart from others, keep washing your hands, and wear your mask (and seatbelt).

Is it safer to take public transportation or ride-share?

Well, neither are great options, given the increased risk of spreading or catching Covid-19 when sharing an enclosed space with strangers. But sometimes you have no choice but to take one or the other.

Ellie Murray, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health, says the relative safety of public transportation or ride-sharing likely depends on the local Covid-19 conditions in your area. In the U.K., she notes, “People who drive buses, taxies, or ride-shares had a high risk of Covid-19, so all shared transportation methods do probably convey some risk.”

A good rule of thumb is to “choose the least crowded option available to you,” Murray says. “If your local buses or subway cars are relatively empty, then that might be a safer option than a ride-share, since there could be more space between you and other passengers than you and the driver in a ride-share. If the public transportation is quite crowded, then ride-share might be a preferred option.”

The usual rules of pandemic hygiene apply in both cases: Wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t touch your face or personal items, and wash your hands with soap and water once you get to where you’re headed.

“If you are heading home,” Murray adds, “you may also want to change into new clothes once you get in.”

Is it safe to use bike-share?

Since the spread of Covid-19 has made it risky to take public transit like subways and buses and to ride in cars with strangers, many are opting to ride a different kind of public vehicle: shared bicycles via bike-share programs. Programs like these, which sometimes also include scooters, let riders avoid breathing around strangers while also getting a bit of exercise en route to their destination. But unanswered questions about the safety of shared seats and handlebars might leave some people leery.

There don’t seem to be any Covid-19 studies specifically on bicycles or scooters, but Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego, and author of The Perfect Predator, suggests treating handles and seats like any other potentially contaminated surface and cleaning them before use.

“[Since] we know that SARS-CoV-2 can live for over a day on some surfaces,” Strathdee wrote in an email, “I would recommend that people wipe down the handlebars and anywhere else they might place their hands, along with the seat, with bleach wipes before using them, just like they would with a grocery cart. I’d also not recommend wearing short shorts!”

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