Anne Monroe, an epidemiologist at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, gave this advice to those considering travel to visit relatives for Thanksgiving or December holidays: “Your perception of safety may not match reality.”
She warned that gatherings where people “perceive” they are safe and in a small group could still pose danger. If the gathering is indoors, she said, and even if only one person has contracted covid-19, it can easily spread. In D.C., Monroe said, health experts have found about 25 percent of new cases involve people who had been attending small social gatherings at homes.
“Don’t let your guard down,” Monroe said. “Minimize your risk as much as possible.” She advises people who gather to stay outdoors, stay six feet apart and wear masks.
Are you traveling for Thanksgiving? If so, by plane, train or car?
Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said he canceled his normal holiday travels to California to see family.
“I don’t feel comfortable traveling for fun,” he said. “To me, it’s not worth the risk.”
If he did travel, he said, car travel carries a lower risk of transmitting or contracting the virus. The biggest goal when traveling, he said, should be to “minimize contact with people.”
Monroe, who has two kids and an elderly relative living with her, said she and her family are staying home this year instead of visiting family in Richmond or other relatives in New York.
“We feel most comfortable staying home this year,” she said. Monroe said she prefers social settings when everyone is outdoors — and having Thanksgiving dinner outside doesn’t seem feasible.
William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said he is not traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday but is driving with his wife in early November to see a newborn granddaughter in Tampa. For Thanksgiving, Petri said he would be okay with his two children on the West Coast flying to visit him, as long as they wore masks and goggles on the flight.
The goggles, he said, keep travelers from touching their eyes — another way the virus can spread — and cut down on germs spreading if someone coughs or sneezes.
Are you going to get tested before your travels? If so, how and when?
Petri said that before he travels to Florida next month, he and his wife will quarantine for several days, get tested and be sure they are negative for the virus. They will pack food in a cooler and stop only to use the restroom.
If people decide to travel for the holiday, how should they travel?
Air travel, Sehgal said, is safe “as long as the plane basically picks you up from your house.” Studies have shown that the in-flight ventilation is safe, but the air inside a shuttle bus to a rental car — or inside an airport or indoor restaurant where you’re close to people — is not ideal.
His advice for those who plan to travel: Quarantine at your house for three days before your trip, then get tested. Wait five to seven days for your results, and if it comes back negative, travel with a medical-grade face covering if flying to the destination.
Sehgal noted travelers interact with several other people, including a ride-share driver or cabdriver on the way to the airport, waiting at a gate, getting a coffee, going to the restroom, walking down the tarmac and getting luggage, plus the other passengers and staff on the plane.
When arriving at a destination, he said, it is recommended to wait 72 hours before interacting with anyone at high risk. Anyone planning to see Grandma or Grandpa should first stay in a guest room or at a hotel, he said.
“The emotional toll, for me, is not worth it,” Sehgal said, calling the planning and testing and quarantining “a nail-biting level of complexity” to travel to see his elderly parents.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I infected my mom and my dad,” Sehgal said. For him, he said, “the safer thing to do is hunker down.”
If you’re traveling, are you staying overnight at other people’s houses?
Once he gets to his son’s house in Florida, Petri said he and his wife won’t wear masks because they will have been tested for the coronavirus.
Staying at a hotel, he said, would pose a “greater risk” because you’re “exposed to strangers in an elevator or stairwell or maybe someone who has covid-19 touches a doorknob and it’s not sanitized.”
For those who want to have a gathering of friends and family in person for Thanksgiving, what things should they consider?
Petri advised that if people try to gather in person, they keep it small and have people over who have been wearing masks and socially distancing during the pandemic.
He agreed with other experts: Stay outdoors, practice social distancing and don’t invite people who are “disregarding safety precautions.” And be mindful of the age mix of the attendees, he said.
“If you’re 80, your risk of dying from covid-19 is 20 times higher than that of a 50-year-old,” Petri said. He suggested not visiting or inviting someone to Thanksgiving dinner who might have underlying health conditions and be high risk.
If you’re not meeting others in person, what are your virtual Thanksgiving plans?
Monroe and other family members will make a family favorite — sweet potato casserole — even though they won’t be together.
“It’s just going to be different this year,” Monroe said. “It’s comforting to know we’ll all be eating the same foods and we can have a phone conversation.”
For Sehgal, it’s a “big deal” to be away from his family during Thanksgiving — something that hasn’t occurred in at least a decade. He said he will FaceTime with friends and family around the country and cook alone here in D.C.
“It’s not the same, but I’m glad to be able to connect with them somehow,” he said.
What’s the next holiday where people might be able to get together without concerns or worries?
Sehgal said he is “cautiously optimistic” that he’ll be able to make travel plans in a safer environment in summer 2021. Even then, he said, his travel plans would involve a lot of outdoor time.
Petri said he expects that by Labor Day of next year, a vaccine will be “widely available” and people will feel more comfortable with traveling.
Monroe said she and her family aren’t planning any travel for the rest of 2020 and probably until she “knows that community transmission is minimal and we have an effective vaccine.”
“By next Thanksgiving, I’d feel comfortable gathering the family again,” she said.
Petri said he can understand that many people are disappointed about having to curb their Thanksgiving travel plans because of the pandemic. He reminded the public: “Next Thanksgiving, it won’t be as terrible, and it’s not forever.”