Fall Road Trip Safe? Depends How Much Risk you’re Willing to Take

aerial view of red car on autumn road
Is it safe to take a fall road trip during the corona pandemic? Experts don't necessarily agree.

With Thanksgiving coming up, and with the pandemic still in full force, many of us are wondering about the feasibility of taking a fall road trip to visit family. Is it safe? How should we handle motel/hotel accommodations, meals, and stops to fill up on gas during COVID-19? What do we need to know about traveling in our cars?

Not to mention the incentive of lower prices at the gas pump. Gas prices are, on average, almost 50 cents less than they were last fall. Apparently, these are the cheapest autumn gas prices since 2016. Assuming we’re careful, shouldn’t we be taking advantage of these low gas prices that may not last very long?

There’s Definitely a Risk

According to a recent article from the New York Times, a discussion with Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Sandra Albrecht, of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Sarah Fortune, chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the decision of whether or not you travel this fall, may be all about how much of a risk-taker you are. Both experts said that travelers must accept some level of risk in everything they do. “If you’re going to travel outside your house, you’re never going to get the risk to zero,” said Dr. Albrecht,” who suggests that that doesn’t mean we can’t travel, only that we take care to “engage in smart behaviors and strategies.”

November, in most places, means that dining al fresco isn’t necessarily going to happen, so do the next best thing and eat where you are staying, in fall. If you do this, you’re at least “contributing to the local economy,” says Albrecht, an important consideration in these tough times.

Dr. Sarah Fortune, on the other hand, feels that the big restaurant chains have stricter standards than one would otherwise encounter in an eatery regarding hygiene, masks, and social distancing. So feel free to get a burger or taco at a known restaurant chain. While you’re there, take the opportunity to use the bathroom. Dr. Albrecht suggests that most restrooms, such as those found in restaurants and gas stations, are fine. People are being careful right now.

car on asphalt road on autumn day

Wash Hands Twice

Any special precautions to take in those restaurants and bathrooms? Well, businesses want to stay in business. Being clean is part of that. But do wash your hands with soap and hot water. Dr. Albrecht recommends you wash twice when going to the bathroom. Once after entering, and again after leaving.

Once upon a time, we looked for bathrooms in department stores or in other large concerns. But many places are closed right now. Even if they are open, they might only allow a limited number of people entrance. So don’t count on these places for your bathroom breaks. The restaurant chains and gas stations are definitely the way to go (pun intended).

We don’t know a lot about how we catch COVID-19, but we do know that the chance of contracting the virus through contact with contaminated surfaces, is small. So don’t be too afraid to handle the gas pump in the gas station. There’s hardly any risk. It’s better, of course, to bring antiseptic wipes to clean the pump before you begin. But in any event you will have stocked hand sanitizer for your trip, so use it when you’re done filling up your tank.

SUV driving in gatineau park quebec canada

Take Precautions

Make sure you have a mask. While all the data is not yet in, it is believed that masks may help prevent the transmission of coronavirus. So any time you are out of your car and around others, you’ll want to put the mask on. It goes without saying that you’ll want to keep a good distance away from all people—outside the people you live with—at all times. That means that if a particular gas station or restaurant is full, and you can safely wait, do so, or drive to the next closest venue.

But not everyone agrees that road trips, even cautious road trips, are a safe bet right now. A public affairs spokesperson for the Michigan State Police said state orders allow for travel only “for the limited purposes of engaging in an outdoor activity and performing the tasks necessary to maintaining an individual’s or family’s health and safety, such as going to the hospital or grocery store.” And of course, you should only travel with people in your immediate household.

It seems that most of the 50 states have similar rules and many of us are puzzled about applying them. What about a scenic drive in the country? Important for mental health? The Michigan State Police think it’s a bad idea. “As much as possible, Michiganders are encouraged to stay home because it is the safest place to be during this public-health emergency.”

Fall Road Trip? Ask Your Doctor

So there you have it: health experts saying yes to a road trip, within limits, and the Michigan State Police saying no. So how are we supposed to know what to do? We suggest you speak to your doctor. Your doctor will know of any state orders that mean you shouldn’t take a fall road trip. Your doctor will also know your medical history and whether or not you are too high risk to be traveling a distance from your home.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you don’t take a trip, whether to the store, or cross-country, with anyone other than those who live with you in your home. Do not under any circumstances pick up hitchhikers, no matter how much your heart breaks for them. And make sure you are well prepared with snacks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and bottles of water.



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