As pandemic fatigue sets in, more and more people are taking to the road. Worried about flying but tired of staying home, they’re setting off on road trips.
Unfortunately, though, driving to a destination has challenges of its own. What happens when you have to make a pit stop or need gas or food? Where do you stay overnight?
For the answers to these questions, I reached out to three health experts:
· Rashid A. Chotani, MD, MPH, FRCPH, Medical Director, IEM, Epidemiologist/Infectious Disease Specialist and Medical Review Board, HealthCentral
· Dr. Ramprasad Gopalan, MD, infectious disease medicine, owner of First Class Medicine
· Carol Winner, MPH, MSE, Public Health Expert and Founder of give space
More people seem to be taking road trips than flying these days. Is that a safer option during the pandemic?
Dr. Gopalan: Flying itself is not dangerous as long as you are wearing proper masks and maintaining hand hygiene. Whether driving or flying, the risk comes from the increased exposure through points of contact – rest stops, ridesharing, common areas, dining and gas stations. When driving, short distances are safer because you are less likely to make as many stops.
Ms. Winner: A road trip is definitely a safer way to travel as you can control your level of risk. Airline travel affords you very little control of risks, offers no social distancing and comes with high surface traffic. Your travel safety priorities during this pandemic are to minimize contact with and exposure to others. Research has confirmed that viral droplets can live in the air for minutes, potentially hours indoors and on steel, plastic and copper surfaces for up to 72 hours. The latest research out of Japan has determined that it can live on our skin for up to nine hours.
If you’re renting a car, request one that was cleaned at least a few hours before driving and wipe down all interior surfaces before driving.
What kind of things should you keep in your car to stay safe during the pandemic?
Dr. Chotani: Keep a kit in your car that includes:
1. Masks or face shields for every person in the car, packed in individual Ziplock bags. Make sure you have different bags with different dates so the masks can be changed daily.
2. Hand sanitizer. Have a bottle in one of the cup holders. Give every person their own hand sanitizer in a small clip-on bottle that they can carry with them all the time.
3. Disinfecting wipes. Use them before touching the gas pump, ATM machine, etc. if not wearing gloves. The wipes must be used to clean surfaces if stopping at a rest stop or a restaurant to eat as well as your cell phone if it is put on a table of any other surface outside the car.
4. A box of disposable gloves. Make sure you consider the glove size, so they fit each person properly. If someone in the group has latex allergies use non-latex gloves.
Ms. Winner: Keep a supply of protective masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer, and bring enough to last you throughout your trip. Masks should always be worn around others, even for a quick stop. Since handwashing is challenging when traveling, gloves can help protect you from surfaces such as store door handles and gas pumps. Always use your hand sanitizer once you return to the car. It is prudent to occasionally wipe down interior surfaces, as this can help to minimize any cross-contamination from stops along the way.
Dr. Gopalan: Definitely keep gloves for pumping gas, and make sure you dispose of them properly after every use. Pack a temporal thermometer to regularly monitor your temperature. Keep multi- surface disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer on you. I also keep Lysol right in the cupholder so it’s nearby.
I would think the riskiest part of road tripping would be having to stop to use a public restroom. Is that true? How do you make that safer?
Dr. Gopalan: Public restrooms and common areas are absolutely the riskiest part of traveling. To minimize your risk, wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose and assume everyone you encounter is infected even if they do not have symptoms. If the public restroom does not have automatic sliding doors, use a disinfectant wipe or a paper towel as a barrier between yourself and the door handle and dispose of it immediately thereafter.
If you have to wait for a toilet to become available, make sure you wait at least six feet apart. Be prepared to leave the stall immediately after flushing. Close the toilet seat, if possible, as there is conflicting data regarding the plumes and whether or not they can prove harmful in an area where the air is not really circulating.
Whatever you do, do not touch your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth. Make sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after toileting and and use your foot, elbow, or a paper towel to open the door. Then use your hand sanitizer, which should contain at least 60% alcohol, before getting back into the car and again immediately after in case you picked up any germs on the door’s handle.
Ms. Winner: Public restrooms are Petri dishes so take your disinfectant wipes and tissues in with you, as paper products may not be available.
Steel surfaces like doorknobs and toilet handles and, often, counters can harbor the active virus for up to three days, so caution is essential. Touching the toilet seat should be avoided, if possible, or use tissue if you must. We are learning more about toilet turbulence and viral spray, so it is best to keep your mask on when using the toilet, and flush by using a tissue while turning your face away from the toilet bowl. Use a paper towel to turn the faucet off after washing your hands with soap and water to avoid having to use hand dryers, as they too can whirl the virus into the air. Always use your paper towel to open the bathroom door on your way out, and then discard.
It is important to recognize that only 65% of women and 31% of men wash their hands after using the restroom. Fecal matter can contain coronavirus as well as numerous other types of pathogens which can get shared through touch on surfaces.
Dr. Chotani: Avoid stopping at crowded rest stops. If you must stop, use basic precautions. Spend as little time in the restroom as possible. Avoid touching any surfaces in the restroom and most definitely don’t touch your face. Wash your hands, carry a wipe or hand sanitizer and clean your hands and if possible, carry a dry wipe to wipe your hand. Don’t forget to wear the face mask or covering and maintain a six-foot social distance from strangers.
As the weather gets colder, making it more challenging to eat outdoors, how do you deal with food? Bring your own? Pick up food and eat it in the car?
Ms. Winner: Indoor restaurant dining increases your risk of infection, as cited by the CDC. Carry-out is the safest way to enjoy any restaurant, by wearing a mask when engaging with others to order, discarding your containers, and sanitizing or washing your hands prior to eating.
Dr. Chotani: Pack food with you before leaving for the road trip. If it is a long trip, use a pickup restaurant. Make a picnic by stopping at a scenic site – plan, plan, plan your trip to make sure you know what you will be doing during the trip and where will you stop.
Dr. Gopalan: Plan ahead to minimize points of contact by packing as much food as possible. Some food delivery programs even offer foods that are designed for road trips. Just make sure you store it according to the company’s policy.
Being in crowds is considered a high risk activity. If you want to dine out along your travels, ordering ahead and paying online to eat in the car is a safer option. When picking up food, be mindful of door handles and high touch areas, use contactless menus and contactless payment when possible and keep the hand sanitizer available to use after contact with any areas of high touch. Wear masks whenever you leave the car.
What precautions should you take when stopping for gas?
Dr. Chotani: Pump handles and credit card keypads are high-touch areas, and could have the virus present, as it can stay alive for hours or even days on hard surfaces. When pumping gas, take extra precautions. Pump handles and credit card keypads are not cleaned by disinfectants and who knows who has used them before you. Use disposable gloves (nitrite or latex) and masks when you exit the car. Invert the gloves and dispose of them after using, and sanitize your hands after getting back in the car. If you don’t have gloves, use paper towels found next to the pump to cover your hands for gripping the pump handle but never forget to wear a mask or face covering. Don’t touch your face and be sure to sanitize your hands after entering the car.
Dr. Gopalan: Use disinfecting wipes on the handles and the buttons. If you don’t have any, a paper towel or other disposable barrier is fine. Just make sure to wear your mask, especially as an added reminder not to touch your face, and then to hand sanitize your hands after touching the handle. Use hand sanitizer or the disinfectant wipe on your credit card, too, and use hand sanitizer again after getting inside the car. Remember to wash your hands when you get to your destination even after using hand sanitizer.
After making a stop, should you do anything specific when you get back in your car?
Dr. Winner: Always sanitize after getting back into the car. It is best to leave your shoes on but if you do remove them, put them on a floorboard (not the seat) and sanitize your hands. The coronavirus can live on shoe fabric and has been found to carry on the soles of shoes worn within medical environments, but it is questionable as to whether or not there would be enough of a viral load to infect. Your greatest risk of infection by anything other than another person, is yourself. Keep your hands clean and you will be safe.
We have recently learned that COVID19 can survive for days on our phones. It is easy to cross-contaminate by putting your phone down in a public space and then bringing it back in your car. It’s best to leave your phone in your car for a quick trip in and out of the gas station or shop, and occasionally wipe it down with a disinfectant wipe.
What’s the best place to stay overnight – a hotel? An Airbnb?
Ms. Winner: The best place to stay is the safest place to stay, so planning ahead is essential. You will want to know who is using COVID-19 safety measures, including enhanced cleaning practices, social distancing in common areas, and requiring employees to wear masks. Enhanced cleaning practices would include measures such as allowing the room or unit to “air out” for at least several hours after being cleaned and wiping down door handles and light switches.
Map out your stay and then check online or call to inquire about their COVID-19 policies. Ask whether linens are washed in hot water and if they have enhanced their cleaning practices to include all surfaces such as TV remotes, doorknobs and light switches. Also ask about social distancing guidelines for guests in common areas, if employees are required to wear masks on-site and if they are tested periodically for COVID-19. Reputable travel and financial websites have good information. For example, nerdwallet.com rates hotel brands on the best COVID-19 cleaning and sterilization policies. Airbnb also lists their COVID-19 cleaning enhancements on their website. If you have flexibility, you might want a low community infection rate and options for overnight stays to “drive” the trip location, versus the other way around.
And do not just leave the cleaning practice to the hotel or rental agency. Pack cleaning supplies to use on your arrival, as coronavirus can live on metal and plastic surfaces for up to three days. A onceover, particularly on the germiest of all surfaces – the TV remote – will help keep you safe.
Dr. Chotani: The risk of catching COVID-19 during an Airbnb stay is low if the space is properly cleaned. However, spot cleaning on arrival is something I would do. I suggest running utensils and dishware through the dishwasher, laundering bedsheets and towels, disinfecting flat surfaces like kitchen countertops and running a disinfecting wipe over phones, TV remotes, door handles, bathroom faucets and toilet handles. Doing this will minimize the risks. If you are sharing an Airbnb with people you don’t know, make sure that everyone is wearing a mask and observing social distancing.
Airbnbs are much safer as the fewer contacts with other people the better it is for you during your stay. Also, you have more control over your environment at an Airbnb by doing spot cleaning yourself.
Dr. Gopalan: I’ve traveled during the pandemic and stayed at both an Airbnb and a private resort. Each had pros and cons. I felt the resort was cleansed to a higher standard but it also had more common areas which increased the risk. To mitigate some risk I used room service almost exclusively.
I had more control over Airbnb in the sense that I was able to Lysol and disinfect the common areas and areas of high touch, and bring my own sheets and towels, and I chose an independent house that had an outdoor sitting area.
What precautions should you take wherever you’re staying overnight?
Ms. Winner: Your greatest precaution is selecting a safe environment to stay overnight. Wiping down surfaces such as doorknobs and the tv remote will help to decontaminate your environment and allow you to enjoy your stay. Your greatest travel risk is person-to-person contact which can be minimized by checking in and out and requesting information and services by using an app or going online, and by avoiding crowded common areas.
Take extra precautions by leaving shoes at the door and keeping your day clothes off your bed, placing them in the laundry bag instead. Bring along your own clean pillowcase or two for added protection. If you are in a hotel, making your own bed and passing on the housekeeping services will help reduce human exposure. Simply request a change of towels ahead of time. Consider bringing a Ziplock bag or two, and wrap the remote control in the bag to use it. If you can open a window and are comfortable doing so, turbulent air is best, as it will denature the virus more rapidly than indoor air.
Dr. Chotani: Wear a mask during the check-in process, going in the elevator up or even the stairwell. Becoming infected from touching surfaces is always a risk. In the room, high-touch areas might include phones, TV remotes, door handles, bathroom faucets, toilet handles, and flat surfaces including the bedside night table if not sanitized properly. Inspect the room to see if it has been properly cleaned and disinfected by checking the bathrooms and seeing if the room is free of dust; check the heating vents to make sure they are clean and free of dust and dirt. These areas will be a major indicator of whether the hotel is clean and safe. However, staying overnight in a hotel is a low-risk activity for members of the same household. Most hotels are sanitizing and cleaning surfaces, but part of your responsibility is to carry a small hand sanitizing bottle and clean your hands after touching elevator buttons and door handles. Hand hygiene is the cornerstone of acquiring and spreading infection.
Dr. Gopalan: In either instance, use contactless options when possible for reservations, for payment, and for the room key. Ask ahead of time what their COVID-19 protocol is for cleaning, disinfecting and ensuring safety and what measures they’re enforcing. Don’t touch objects that are frequently supposed to be changed like the glasses in the room or the pens. The hotel can provide you with disposable cups. Sanitize your light switches, thermostats, door handles, faucets and surfaces.
What should you do about meals?
Ms. Winner: Indoor restaurant dining increases your risk of infection, as cited by the CDC. Carry-out or delivery is the safest way to enjoy any restaurant, by wearing a mask when engaging with others to order, discarding your containers, and sanitizing or washing your hands prior to eating.
If you are enjoying an extended stay, renting a unit that will allow you to prepare your own meals is safest.
Dr. Chotani: Ordering room service or delivery from an outside restaurant. Going to the hotel restaurant or any restaurant is risky as when the food arrives, you will have to remove your mask. However, if the weather is not bad and there is outside seating at a restaurant where tables are at least six feet apart – have some fun.
Anything you’d like to add?
Ms. Winner: The trajectory of COVID-19 cases is on the rise and it is simple math: the more people that have it in a community, the higher the spread. Keep in mind that although driving may be the safest mode of travel, you are not necessarily safer at your destination.
Dr. Chotani: We know that people can potentially transmit the virus as many as six days prior to developing symptoms. Therefore, assume that anyone you encounter could be potentially infectious. The virus is still here, and the number of cases is increasing and will increase further during the winter season. As you would after any trip outside your home during this unusual time, remember to wash your hands before touching anything at home. The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and failing that, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Also, don’t forget to get your flu shot and, if you’re 65 years or older, get your pneumococcal vaccine.