There are over 120,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently in the U.S. 25% of those cases are in Manhattan and 50% in the New York-New Jersey area. I’ve got family self-quarantined with the virus and fortunately symptoms weren’t serious enough to put him in the hospital, but they’ve still been pretty miserable for him.
He obviously shouldn’t travel while he’s infected, and I’m not suggesting anyone travel to Manhattan since if there’s 10 times the number of people with the virus as there are confirmed cases, then 3.5% of the population there currently has it.
The main strategic objectives in limiting travel are:
- Not bringing the virus into an area if you’re infected
- Not infecting other travelers while traveling in confined spaces
- Not getting infected while traveling in confined spaces
We don’t want people to travel from highly infected areas (because they might be infected) to areas where the virus isn’t spreading (because that could bring it in).
Having someone with the virus traveling to an area where there’s already significant spread doesn’t really change anything. When the virus is already spreading at the passenger’s destination, at most travelers bringing the virus in speed that spread where they’re going, and slow it where they’ve left. (Having lots of people with the virus travel someplace that’s otherwise getting things under control is another matter.)
If you don’t have COVID-19, you won’t make other people sick. Then the question is, are you more likely to get sick staying at home or traveling?
- With mostly empty planes social distancing is easy. Limit contact, wash your hands vigorously, don’t touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands. I’d avoid the aircraft lavatory.
- Flight attendants are at relatively higher risk because they’re coming into contact with more people than average. They’re taking several flights a day, each day they work. Not so with a passenger who takes just one flight with perhaps 25 people on board a Boeing 737.
Someone who (a) isn’t infected (b) traveling to somewhere that infections are low is not a problem.
Someone who (a) isn’t infected (b) traveling to somewhere that infections are high is largely raising the risk to themselves, and they need to act responsibly, social distance, and self-quarantine if needed.
The number one reason I think it’s a bad idea to fly right now is government risk rather than virus risk. As a result the biggest concern is the ability to get home.
- Rules are constantly changing.
- Borders are closing.
- Quarantines are being imposed.
- Uncertainty and fear are keeping people away from travel (and so are government orders) and so flights are cancelling.
More broadly, the major challenges we’re facing with travel (and with being able to go out and ‘do stuff’) are three-fold:
- This virus spreads pre-symptomatically, so we don’t know who has it – we don’t know at any given time that we don’t have it.
- We aren’t doing enough testing, not just of people with symptoms to ‘track and trace’ and make sure people infected with the virus don’t infect others, but of people who aren’t symptomatic at all – to verify that they do not have the virus, and then doing that over and over.
- That there’s not enough personal protective equipment (like N95 face masks) for health care workers, let alone for the rest of us.
Let me be clear. I’ve been at home for three weeks. I cancelled all of my March travel, and I fully expect to cancel all of my April travel. I’m firmly on Team Stay Home. I figure May trips are even unlikely but still kept itineraries intact to wait for airlines to cancel flights, so I could push for a refund rather than a credit, and give myself hope, and something to look forward to.
My hotel in Malta for late May just cancelled on me, saying they won’t re-open until at least June. And I’m not taking advantage of the current $13 cross country fares either.
However for most people travel right now is safer than we’re giving it credit for – these things are always relative – and it’s safer for the places they’re traveling to also. Although if I was in New York City, and could verify I didn’t have the virus, I’d be trying to get out for sure. And the list of places I’ll say that about is likely growing, of course.