In a normal year, this would be the time to visit family, host some celebrations, and maybe even take a grand vacation while the kids are on school break.
Of course, this isn’t a normal year.
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, many families are wondering whether it’s possible—finally—to travel again. The answer depends on a lot of factors, including where you live, where you’re going, how you’ll get there, how long you plan to stay and who you’ll be around.
First and foremost, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended this week that people not travel for Thanksgiving. The safest place to be during the holidays is at home—your home, with your immediate family (the ones who live in the house with you). Even inviting a few relatives or friends over is ill-advised: the CDC says that these small household gatherings, once thought to be of lower risk, are now driving increases in Covid cases in the U.S.
If your family has to travel for one reason or another, here’s what to keep in mind.
Think Hard About Transportation
Until the pandemic is brought under control, driving is still the safest form of travel—though it’s not risk-free. How many bathroom breaks, lunch stops and overnights will you need to get to your destination? Are you going to an area that has high rates of infection?
“When there’s a lot of Covid in an area, the risks of contracting it are still high,” said Dr. Lucian Davis, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. That’s true even if we take every precaution while traveling, including the strict use of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
If you stay overnight in a hotel, make sure you book ahead. Hotels, motels and even Airbnbs should have their Covid safety and sanitation guidelines posted online; if they don’t, look elsewhere.
If you’re planning to fly, be aware that not all carriers are treating Covid equally. Currently, only five U.S. airlines—Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska—are blocking middle seats. While this may not seem like an issue if you’re sitting together as a family, it does tell you something about how cautious an airline is being about Covid. There are industry-wide mask requirements for all passengers and crew—but enforcement often comes down to individual flight attendants.
Watch the Borders
Some U.S. states have placed restrictions on incoming travelers, meaning you might not be allowed to drive over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house—at least, if she lives in Connecticut, New York, or Maine. The New York Times is keeping a current list of state-by-state travel restrictions.
Worldwide, travel restrictions vary country-to-country, often according to which country you arrive from or transit through. The International Air Transport Association keeps an updated map of global travel restrictions.
Be Careful to Quarantine
If you plan to travel to visit relatives, you need to begin a household quarantine two weeks before your trip. That’s a strict quarantine, meaning no leaving the house or interacting with people outside your household. Groceries should be delivered—or at most, be picked up curbside. You should also have any relatives you’ll be visiting agree to a 14-day quarantine—and trust that they’ll stick to it.
Don’t Rely on Testing
Getting your family tested for Covid-19 in the days before you travel doesn’t ensure that you’re in safe territory.
According to a recent study by the Annals of Internal Medicine, if you contract Covid the day before you get tested for it, you have a 100% chance of a false negative test. Even four days after infection, there’s a 67% chance of a false negative test result.
“We have to think about not just percentages of risk,” Davis said. “But if we’re wrong, and we introduce Covid into our gathering, what are the consequences?”
Bottom line: A test isn’t a substitute for a full quarantine—or just staying home.
Don’t Stay Long (and Stay Outside)
What about visiting relatives, but only for a holiday meal, no overnights included? Davis said that he doesn’t advocate for this approach, but if you’re going to do it, wear masks when you’re not eating, dine with windows open, have guests seated far apart and eat off trays prepared in another room (in order to avoid cross-contamination in food).
A better alternative is to eat outside, if it’s at all possible. Consider too, that when it comes to social distancing, little kids and grandparents may be the worst rule-breakers —and who has the heart to keep them from hugging each other?
Wait Until Next Year
When Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced the nation’s strict lockdown measures back in March, he told the Italian people, “Rimaniamo distanti oggi per abbracciarci più forte domani”—Let’s keep our distance today to hug each other more closely tomorrow. Thanks to promising news about Covid-19 vaccines, that tomorrow may be on the near horizon.
“[Families] can start to imagine the next holiday season,” Davis said, “and maybe next year plan to do something fantastic together.” Save your money for a big blowout or group vacation next year.
“No one wants to look back and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’” he said.