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To fly or drive or skip the trip? Weighing the risks of travel during the pandemic

The CDC still discourages travel and recommends face masks for everyone, “including during travel if they must travel.”

In this Monday, April 27, 2020, photo provided by Vince Warburton, passengers get off an American Airlines flight after they landed at Los Angeles International Airport. JetBlue requires passengers to wear face makes during flights, and Frontier Airlines says it will, too, but face coverings are strictly optional on most airlines. American Airlines said it will start providing masks for passengers who want them.
Vince Warburton via Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — As spring blooms in the West, restless Americans have begun to revive a question raised by British punk band The Clash in 1982: “Should I stay or should I go?”

And if they go — taking the risk that they could spread or catch the deadly and highly contagious coronavirus — should they fly or should they drive?

Here’s what you need to know.

The risk of travel

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still encouraging people to not travel and remain home as much as possible during the pandemic.

“Traveling to visit friends and family increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. It is possible for someone to have COVID-19 and spread it to others, even if they have no symptoms,” according to the CDC.

As of May 1, new “moderate risk” guidelines encourage Utahns to “leave home infrequently” and “limit out-of-state travel.” State officials recommend people maintain 6 feet of social distancing when in public and wear a mask when distancing may be difficult to maintain — like in a gas station convenience store or on an airplane.

Only essential travel, like seeking emergency care and trips to the grocery store, is recommended for those at high risk of health complications from the coronavirus — people 65 or older, individuals in long-term care facilities, and those vulnerable due to a preexisting medical condition — according to Utah’s guidelines.

Like Utah, the CDC also recommends everyone wear a face mask, “including during travel if they must travel.”

By land

While millions of Americans find themselves working from home or unemployed during the pandemic, Utah’s highway maintenance crews have remained on the job, said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. The state has also continued to move forward with its annual road construction schedule, he said.

“The roads are incredibly safe and have remained so,” Gleason told the Deseret News. Rest areas are also open for highway travelers.

Traffic on the state’s major highways was down 22.5% last week compared to that same week in 2019, according to data from the Utah Department of Transportation. Highway travel began to slide in mid-March and bottomed out at half the normal highway traffic in early April.

This also means fewer people at rest stops, gas stations and restaurant drive-thrus. But each stop — every bathroom door handle, every gas pump and every cheeseburger wrapper — is still another chance of coming into contact with someone who has the virus.

In this Thursday, April 30, 2020, photo, a sign on a gas pump asks that a paper towel be used when refueling to stymie the spread of the coronavirus in West Valley City, Utah.
Jeff Parrott, Deseret News

By air

Viruses and germs are not easily spread in the air during flights because of airline filtration systems, according to the CDC. But the coronavirus can be transmitted between passengers and flight crews through direct contact on the plane and at the airport.

Salt Lake City International Airport is now greeting, checking in and searching around a tenth of its usual 20,000 travelers, said Nancy Volmer, airport spokeswoman.

Due to the pandemic, Salt Lake City International Airport looks like a ghost town and six employees — including a TSA agent and two concession workers — have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Deseret News reported.

The airport is “focused in on safety for passengers,” Volmer said. A robust cleaning program is targeting frequent touch points like elevator buttons and handrails. Restaurants that remain open are practicing social distancing. Hand sanitizer stations are located around the airport.

Flights which are still operating are averaging 20-30% of their passenger capacity. In-flight food and beverage services have been reduced — like offering bottled water only — or eliminated to prevent unnecessary contact between people, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Last week, travelers and flight crews in and out of masks were seen outside of the airport. Delta Airlines and Jet Blue currently require all passengers and flight crew to wear masks and by Sunday most airlines will be requiring travelers to wear masks.

The cost

One reason travel is tempting is the diminished cost, due to the global pandemic.

It’s about 660 highway miles from Salt Lake City to Phoenix. If you point your car southbound on Interstate 15 as the sun begins to peek over the Wasatch mountains, you could get there in time for dinner. If your car gets the national average of 25 miles per gallon, the round trip will cost just about $120 at the pump, thanks to bedrock-low oil prices.

Travelers in a hurry can find a direct flight to Phoenix which lands in time for brunch — takeout, of course. The round trip will cost about the same as the drive if you book an economy class seat a couple weeks in advance.

Staying safe

COVID-19 aside, travelers are far more likely to die in a car accident than on an airplane. According to a National Safety Council analysis of mortality data from 2018, the odds of dying in a car crash were 1 in 106. There were too few airline deaths to calculate the odds, but demise by lightning strike or dog attack was more likely.

As of Tuesday, nearly 1.2 million people in America had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins, and more than 70,200 have succumbed to the deadly disease.

For those who must conduct essential travel — or for the restless — the CDC recommends several safety measures for coronavirus road trips:

  • Pack non-perishable food, water, medications.
  • Do not dine-in.
  • Travel with at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer and other personal cleaning supplies.
  • Stop as little as possible.
  • Wash hands often, wear a mask, and maintain social distancing.

But the most surefire way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and the cure to The Clash’s predicament, is to “stay” safe at home.