Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly says it is safe to fly again, “We’re doing everything possible to encourage people to come back and fly.”
I’m going to offer what I hope is a slightly more limited and nuanced take, that it is safe for some people to plan now to travel again during the months of June, July and August. This is speculative, but sums up my currently thinking about where we stand.
Society Can Re-Open A Little Bit
The number of new cases in the U.S. has plateaued, thanks to social distancing measures, but has not declined as hoped. Still the reproductive rate of the virus is likely less than one right now, so there’s some room to loosen restrictions.
Unfortunately in parts of the country where guidance is ‘opening up carefully’ the message people seem to be taking is ‘opening up’ and not ‘carefully’. That’s one reason there’s risk, that without precautions we could see the virus get out of control and a return to lock downs.
Still, the point of lock downs and social distancing wasn’t to eradicate the virus. It wasn’t going to do that once we passed (and failed) the containment stage. It was a mitigation measure to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed to the point that treatment wasn’t effective (indeed, where hospitals had to ration resources and potentially make decisions about which patients to save). Lock downs were meant to buy time to expand capacity and obtain personal protective equipment.
In much of the country there is plenty of capacity. In Travis County, which includes Austin where I live, just 35 out of 172 available ICU beds are in use and 16 out of 392 ventilators are in use.
It’s Not Going To Be ‘Completely Safe’ Any Time Soon
My rough back of the envelope has been to assume an infection fatality rate of 0.005, so in the absence of demographic information I multiply the number of reported coronavirus-related deaths by 200 to get the infection rate three weeks ago and then double that number to get current infections (given the slowed down rate of spread).
Here in Travis County there have been 52 deaths, which implies 20,800 cases (roughly 1.5% of the population). That’s not too far off my other working hypothesis that actual cases has been about 10x the number of confirmed cases. There are 1756 confirmed cases, implying 17,560 total (about 15% fewer than the first model suggests). Not bad that the two more or less converge.
Regardless whether we’re looking at 2% in Austin, 3-4% for the country as a whole, or even 25% in New York City, we’re not at ‘herd immunity’ where the virus is petering out but we’re also not currently facing exponential growth. As parts of the country re-open we could see greater growth, which would mean a return to more restrictions.
For now some states are seeing declining cases. In most places the number of new positive tests is flat, perhaps representing a new normal. We might see a respite over the summer. As I have said throughout I expect there to be some seasonality to the virus, and certainly more people spending more time outside is good because the virus seems to spread most aggressively indoors.
And though definitely indoors planes themselves are probably less risky than you think especially while the number of passengers remains so sparse. I wouldn’t fly a small regional jet which crams people together and lacks HEPA air filtration, however.
The coronavirus may simply persist at current levels or it may shoot back up in the fall. Different places may get it differently which means travel could spread it from affected locations outward to other places.
But hospital capacity is good in parts of the country and we are beginning to see treatments which makes it less scary. The goal is to keep the virus manageable, to improve patient outcomes, while we continue to develop even better treatments and ultimately – hopefully – a vaccine.
Travel Is Beginning To Show Signs Of Life
Travel is not going to come back to previous levels any time soon. Air travel bottomed out in the middle of April and has seen a very small bounce since then – perhaps a dead cat bounce, but we know we have at least hit bottom.
There’s nowhere to go but up, but there’s also a reason that United is preparing to furlough a third of its pilots once government restrictions on airline layoffs are lifted.
There will be flights and there will be passengers, just fewer of them. Even if people aren’t traveling in great numbers currently, travel searches are up – for trips starting in July.
We Shouldn’t Treat All Activity Or Places As Having The Same Risk
If there is one overwhelming feature of this virus it is its heterogeneity.
The virus has killed many in Iran but not Iraq. It’s killed many in the Dominican Republic, but not in Haiti. It seems to have different outcomes in Jakarta than in Bali. Fatalities seem low in Malaysia relative to spread. Spread may be out of control in India, but that hasn’t translated to mortality. Maybe the virus hasn’t come to some of these places yet – it was late to Russia and now seems out of control. But why are death rates low in Israel?
Young people don’t face much risk, but that isn’t zero risk. There’s research on heart and other organ disease, and strokes, faced by people in their 30s and that doesn’t get captured in mortality statistics. Oddly tobacco use seems prophylactic in some way rather than being tied to more negative outcomes.
Of course if a young person contracts the virus they can spread it to vulnerable populations. The Swedish approach with far more modest restrictions and a goal of reaching herd immunity is at least plausible there because of the relatively limited number of intergenerational households. The health service in the UK gets overwhelmed no matter what policy is pursued because there was so little slack in health care capacity to begin with.
One of the major problems we face in evaluating what activities are risky, and therefore what cautions to take, is the lack of reliable data. Governments are taking lock down steps, and loosening steps, in the absence of sufficient information to guide action.
What are the demographics of positive tests (and negative tests) in each city? What age group, zip code, and gender? What type of symptoms does each psoitive-tested person have? What contact did they have, both distance and duration, and whether the spreader and infected person were wearing masks? We want to know whether spread happened indoors or outdoors. At a nursing home?
We don’t really have the information we need to know where is safe, or what steps to take. If we did we could be more tailored. But if this is the new normal, if this isn’t overwhelming health care capacity at the moment, many of us can take cautious steps towards experiencing life again.
Let’s Plan Summer Travel
There’s a phenomenon I’ve seen in comments here, on other blogs, and on Twitter of trip shaming. I don’t think that should be a universal reaction, just as I don’t think Sara Nelson’s proposal to ban leisure travel makes any sense.
That doesn’t mean everyone should travel, or that everywhere is a destination to consider. Hawaii doesn’t want you (yet). If there’s a quarantine order people arriving, that can’t be overcome with on the spot virus testing, then cross off that destination for now. All countries still have restrictions of some kind on travel.
If you’re in a high risk demographic, for instance over 60 with pre-existing conditions, consider taking greater steps to social distance. Every employee showing up to work at a nursing home should be tested for COVID-19 every day prior to starting their shift.
Still I think we are going to see more car trips that allow for distancing. We’ll see people Airbnb’ing homes. I wouldn’t go to New York or New Jersey yet, or anywhere that is a hot spot or in lock down. But I might consider South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Arkansas or West Virginia. I’ll take trips within Texas – half of the state’s counties have had 5 or fewer cases. And I will watch developments to see whether the trips I am considering make sense.
There is risk. it is not zero. It wasn’t zero before. Few activities have zero risk, there are on average about 465 accidental deaths per day in the United States though of course COVID-19 has been a leading cause of death for several weeks.
Right now though it seems that for some people and in some places there’s an acceptable level of risk to take baby steps towards a return to normal life.
And with change fee waivers in place for both new airline ticket purchases and otherwise-nonrefundable hotel bookings, it seems reasonable to plan a trip and make a final decision whether to take it based on circumstances as they develop.
I am not a public health official, nor an epidemiologist nor virologist. Of course predictions from those with such a background early on in the pandemic haven’t borne out well either. Nonetheless this is my overall view, informed by spending an inordinate amount of time reading pre-publication papers about the novel coronavirus as a non-specialist (though as someone whose primary job is not, in fact, writing about travel).