By: Joe Feist
In the face of a pandemic, the only risk-free course of action is to never go outside your front door. But it’s summer, you’re stir crazy and outside your window a big, beautiful highway is calling.
Even as the coronavirus speeds on, the road will beckon for many. Estimates of the number vary widely, but it’s clear that millions of Americans will travel this summer. The all-American road trip is back. But can you get behind the wheel in a relatively safe manner, reduce any risk and enjoy the country?
Yes, said Fred Campbell, MD, an internal medicine physician and associate professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio. In fact, Dr. Campbell and his wife, Kate, took a 3,000-mile road trip last month from San Antonio to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
“With the proper planning, with social distancing and the personal protection equipment, yes, a road trip can be done with minimal risk,” Dr. Campbell said. “I would not advise it, though, for people with chronic medical conditions. But other than that, it’s possible even for seniors, and it’s psychologically uplifting.”
There are several things to consider when planning a road trip, Dr. Campbell said. First is the destination. New Orleans’ Bourbon Street or Miami Beach present different challenges than Big Bend in relatively isolated West Texas.
“Going to urban settings, to big shows or venues, or someplace where you have to stand in long lines, going to a Disneyland, for example, those things are all high risk,” he said.
Remember, wide open spaces are always safer. A national park, a bucolic rural enclave or sandy beach are better choices for a road trip.
It’s also a good idea to do some research on the coronavirus situation at your destination. State and local health department websites are a good resource. While you’re at it, look up the attractions or shops or restaurants you’re interested in for any closures or restrictions.
Consider how you get there, as well.
“We planned a route that was primarily rural with very few large cities on our way,” Dr. Campbell said of his trip to Yellowstone. “We avoided even medium-sized communities.”
Packing a good supply of personal protection equipment is obviously paramount. You’ll need plenty of hand sanitizer (alcohol based, with at least 60 percent alcohol), hand wipes, perhaps gloves. Do not use a sanitizer containing methanol. Check the Food and Drug Administration’s website for which brands to avoid.
The most important item to take is a good face covering.
“We took three masks each in case we misplaced one. You always want to have a face mask,” Dr. Campbell said. “It doesn’t have to be anything extremely sophisticated like an N-95 mask, just a regular cloth covering of the face is adequate for travel.”
Pay attention when packing to what you may need on the trip—medicines, particular items of clothing, first-aid kits, extra batteries—anything you may need so as to minimize stops or time spent at crowded stores or markets. It’s also important to make sure your vehicle is in the best shape possible. You don’t want to spend hours at a car repair shop, whether or not there’s a pandemic.
As much as possible, it’s a good idea to pack more snacks and drinks than usual to avoid stops. Plan a road trip picnic with food you’ve brought along if you can. When going to a restaurant, check in advance to see if the eatery is enforcing social distancing and mask wearing. Always choose to eat outside if possible, and you might want to wipe down the table and chairs with a sanitized hand wipe.
Better yet, do as Dr. Campbell did.
“We decided to pick up our food to go. That’s obviously safer.”
Having to use a public restroom is probably the most feared aspect of a road trip. But again, the risks can be minimized, Dr. Campbell said. First, look for the same type of convenience store or rest stop you chose before the pandemic in terms of cleanliness. If possible, choose a restroom where alternating stalls, urinals and sinks are closed. Avoid touching any unnecessary surfaces and use gloves or paper towels for faucets and to open doors. While there is some evidence that flushing a toilet can send plumes of germs into the air, the World Health Organization has said the risk of contracting COVID-19 in this manner is very low. So always close the toilet lid and always, always wear a mask.
Avoid crowded restrooms. It’s a good idea, if you can, to wait until the restroom is empty. If you can find a restroom that only accommodates one person, that would be ideal as it would pose little risk if you are cautious. In every case, go in quickly, do your business, wash your hands and sanitize your hands immediately.
“Usually we stopped for gas at a corner store type location, not a large truck stop or any place where there would likely be large crowds of people milling around,” Dr. Campbell said. “We planned for early morning or late, when there would be a minimal number of people. After you fill up, you can take care of anything on your hands very quickly with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.”
For added protection, you could also use gloves to work the pump.
Dr. Campbell and his wife stayed in both hotels and a B&B on their road trip.
“I found that both places were equally good at minimizing transmission” through their cleaning protocols, he said. But again, planning was key. “We scoped out our accommodations in advance to make sure that we had talked to the folks about what we expected in the way of precautions,” he said. You should do the same.
When checking in at a hotel, spend as little time as possible at the front desk and avoid areas where other guests may congregate. Wear gloves, or use your elbow, when pushing elevator buttons. Once in your room, you may want to wipe down surfaces again, just to be sure.
And finally …
When road tripping, remember to observe social distancing, always wear a mask and wash your hands frequently. In other words, it’s just like being in San Antonio, except you may be watching the buffalo roam or Old Faithful doing its magic.
UT Health San Antonio
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