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Six spring break trip ideas, graded from risky to safe

Health experts assess the risk of popular spring break travel plans using a traffic-light system

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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This time last year, millions of Americans were planning their spring break trips as usual. But by March, the novel coronavirus was rapidly infecting the country, and travelers were urged to cancel whatever trips they had booked to flatten the curve. Many flouted public health advice, leading to an increase in outbreaks.

Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t over. Once again, health experts are begging Americans to reconsider their spring travel plans, and some colleges are canceling the break altogether to keep students from traveling. With the issue of new highly transmissible variants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you do not travel at this time.

While Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist at George Mason University, would prefer Americans stay home or take a staycation this year, she also understands there is a growing need for mental health breaks.

And Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, says there are both safe and extremely unsafe options for a getaway: “It just really depends. Everything right now is about reducing risk,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be as binary as lock down, stay at home … that’s not really sustainable.”

With that in mind, we asked health experts to assess the risk of popular trip ideas ahead of the spring break season.

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Red light: Traveling to party

Whether you’re going to Florida or Cabo, traveling to party right now is a terrible idea.

“For doctors like me who work in the ICU, [spring break partying] is our nightmare,” says Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “Please don’t do that.”

Throughout the pandemic, Choi has heard the same stories from ICU patients, over and over: It was just one dinner, it was just one party.

And even if you have already been infected with the coronavirus, or have gotten the vaccine, the advice remains the same: Don’t travel to party.

“We don’t know enough about the duration of immunity, and we have seen many instances of reinfection at this point,” says Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There is a risk that you could become infected again and then bring that back to your family and friends.”

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Yellow light: Traveling to the beach

After slogging through the winter, people seek out refuge in the sun. According to our experts, there’s both a way to do that safely and a way that puts yourself and others at risk.

The most pandemic-friendly beach option is to drive to a rental home where you only stay with members of your household.

“A beach house where you can bring in your own groceries and do your own cooking and not have to have too many interactions with others — I think that’s a good idea,” Rivera says.

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The assessment changes if you’re planning to go to a crowded beach destination where it’s difficult to social distance, or to a beach destination where they’re experiencing a coronavirus surge. And experts are more wary when it comes to traveling to a beach by plane, whether you’re flying to Hawaii, the Caribbean or anywhere else.

Even though airlines are enforcing safety precautions on board, we know that the coronavirus is still getting on planes. Rivera also says risks go beyond the flight itself, and she recommends avoiding nonessential air travel.

“I think a lot of people think about flying is just the act of being in a plane,” she says. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s going to the airport. It’s going to the gate agent. It’s dealing with security. It’s boarding and disembarking and baggage claim.”

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Yellow light: Getting a vacation rental

Our experts say renting a beach house or cabin with members of your household can be done safely.

Cooking at home and getting takeout are the safest dining options — you may want to plan ahead and check if your rental destination has food delivery options.

Rivera does not recommend eating at restaurants. “Indoor dining is very high risk, and under no circumstances would I recommend that,” she says. “When it comes to outdoor dining, it depends because there are ways to do it well, and there are ways that don’t work.”

If a restaurant has tables tightly packed together outside, or the “outdoor” setting is actually enclosed in with others, Rivera says to skip it. “You need widely open spaces, sufficient spacing between the tables, that the waitstaff and the people that work there are protected, have proper PPE — then I think you can do it.”

If you’re planning on having people outside of your household stay under one roof, doing so safely will take extra planning and legwork. Popescu recommends using scientist Joseph Osmundson’s checklist for merging groups.

“Risk perception is so subjective,” Popescu says. “What I might consider risky might be not for the same for another person. [Merging groups] requires some planning and a lot of communication and transparency because things happen.”

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Yellow light: Taking a ski or snowboard trip

Skiing and snowboarding are both low-risk activities, and our experts agree that they can be done safely. Still, travelers need to make careful choices when determining where to eat, stay and spend their time off the mountain.

“The biggest risk is if you have to do anything indoors, whether to get food or to go to the bathroom or to get rentals,” Rivera says. “Your best bet — and this assumes a lot of privilege and ability — is to come as prepared as possible; prepared with food, prepared with your own equipment so you don’t have to deal with rentals.”

If you’re not staying in a private accommodation, Popescu recommends booking lodging that advertises strict coronavirus precautions or offers amenities like contactless check-in.

Be warned that even if a place promises such measures, you may show up and find the rules aren’t being implemented or enforced. Avoid common areas, and keep social distance from other guests.

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Yellow light: Taking a road trip

Our experts felt more comfortable about people taking road trips than they did about people flying.

“I think it can be undertaken much more safely, especially if you limit your contact while on the road,” Watson says. “Don’t spend time in restaurants or at rest stops, those sorts of things. And wear your mask when you do have to come into contact with other people.”

Rest stops are inevitable if you’re traveling long distances, but travelers can plan ahead to navigate them with less risk.

Where you’re road-tripping to and, unfortunately, the state of ICU beds along your route also matter.

“You don’t want to risk getting into a car accident because you don’t know what the state of the hospitals are in those places,” Rivera says. “You just have to be thinking big picture. … There are just a lot of things that you have to consider when it comes to what could go wrong, and how can you afford those potential risks of exposure?”

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Green light: Going camping

If you do this with members of your household, or keep a distance from others while wearing masks, our health experts all agree camping can be done safely this spring break.

“That should be a low-risk activity as long as they’re keeping the [coronavirus] precautions and especially social distancing,” Choi says, adding that each camper should have their own tent.

Note that even though you’re spending all of your time outside, you should still be doing things like social distancing and masking. Avoid sharing utensils if you’re camping with people outside of your household, and remember to review this checklist before you meet up.

Read more on travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive

Destinations: Hawaii | Puerto Rico | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico