March 9, 2021 -- One year into the pandemic, spring break season is again in full swing. With distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines accelerating, it’s tempting to get away for an long-awaited vacation. You wouldn’t be alone: A recent travel industry survey found 12% of respondents made spring break travel plans by the end of February, and Miami is expecting students from more than 200 colleges to visit in the coming weeks. But is it safe?
Not yet, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project. Daily metrics are trending in a positive direction, “but we're also at a crossroads right now, where it's a race between the variants and the vaccines,” she says. “I wouldn't say somebody should look at the daily data and say, ‘Oh, it's safe for me to travel.’”
What We Learned Last Year
In 2020, spring break season coincided with the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 of last year, and the CDC recommended social distancing around the same time, but it didn’t recommend mask-wearing until early April.
“It was too late for people to completely cancel their plans and really understand how serious this was,” says Nadeen White, MD, an Atlanta pediatrician and travel blogger. “People were still traveling.”
Photos of beaches packed with partiers in Florida and elsewhere made headlines around the world. And when the students returned to campus, the virus came with them. Studies based on cellphone data and contact tracing found that outbreaks followed spring break trips.
This Year’s Outlook
For 2021, the CDC is hoping to head off outbreaks and repeating its holiday guidance against travel. “CDC recommends that people not travel at this time, and delay spring break travel until 2022,” a CDC spokesperson told The Washington Post. Even those who have been fully vaccinated are urged to avoid travel.
At least 67 colleges and universities, from enormous state schools to smaller private colleges and Ivy League universities, have changed their schedules to eliminate weeklong breaks, according to a list compiled by Northwest Florida Daily News. Among schools that are giving students a week off, some are encouraging “staycations” on campus to reduce the risk of spread.
ome schools that canceled spring break acknowledge the need for time off during the semester and are offering “wellness days,” midweek days off that don’t give students even a long weekend to get away. Editorials have railed against the “wellness day” plans in student newspapers at Emerson College, Tufts University, Temple University, Boston University, and elsewhere.
Georgia Tech senior Kelly O’Neal points out that midweek days off, with assignments and exams the next day, just turn into workdays. “It’s not much of a break at all.”
And the doled-out days in lieu of a week off may not even work to limit travel. “They canceled spring break to keep people from traveling, but they’re going anyway,” O’Neal says. “It’s a double whammy of not stopping the travel and hurting students’ mental health.”
Safe Travel Is Possible
“I do believe there are safe ways to travel,” says White, the doctor and travel blogger. “For a whole year, people have been stuck in their homes. I think a lot of people are ready to get back out there..”
Epidemiologist Rivera agrees. “Being aware of your mental health and doing things to protect your mental health … should be prioritized,” she says. “I think renting an Airbnb someplace where you don't live is a great idea, because it's typically contactless check-in and checkout, and you can bring your own food.”
That’s what Michelle Ries is doing with her family of five. They’ve rented a house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is only 3 hours from their home in Raleigh. “We did a trip to the mountains over the summer and brought all our food for the week, so we didn't have to shop when we got there -- we plan to do the same for this trip,” she says. They also chose a destination they could drive to without stopping for gas or restrooms.
Here’s what the experts recommend for save travel:
Do your research. “If you’re hopping on a plane to another country, you should be asking, ‘What does transmission look like there? What’s the health care infrastructure? What does vaccination look like?’” says Rivera. “If the answer to all those things is ‘Worse than where you’re departing from,’ I wouldn’t feel comfortable going.”
Ries monitored her region’s stats before booking the trip to the Outer Banks. “We’ve been watching the case rates in our state closely, and when the positive test rate fell to around 5% and the hospital capacity was not as full, we decided we could do the trip.”
When choosing where to go, look for places off the beaten path, away from crowds. That rules out the typical spring break destinations, White points out.
Research your accommodations, too. When renting a vacation home, ask questions about the owner’s cleaning protocol. If you’re staying in a hotel, look for one where you can enter the room directly from the outside, without passing through a lobby. Skiing is a great idea, White and Rivera say, since you’ll be outside most of the time -- as long as you choose a resort where you can remain isolated from other guests when you’re indoors. Camping is another good option, but seek a site that accepts reservations so you can make sure management is limiting access and the area won’t get too crowded.
Drive, don’t fly. Airplanes themselves may be clean, but you still have to deal with the airport. “There's still a big risk of exposure when you're flying,” says White.
With road trips, on the other hand, you can plan your stops carefully to lessen your exposures. Rivera says stopping for gas -- typically contactless and distanced from others -- isn’t worrisome. “But for bathroom breaks, to the best of your ability, pick places that are as spread out as possible.”
That means if the rest stop parking lot is teeming with cars, you might want to keep driving. Another benefit to driving, especially to a rental home with a kitchen: You can pack more, which means you should be able to bring all the food you need with you, cutting the exposure you’d risk in a new-to-you grocery store.
Stay in your bubble. As tempting as it is to meet up with friends or family you haven’t seen in a year, we’re not out of the danger zone yet. “If you're going to be traveling with other people from other areas, that takes a lot more planning. You have to agree on what you’re going to do in terms of quarantining and testing before you leave,” says White. She recommends consulting the Quaranpod Discussion Checklist to make sure you’re taking the right precautions.
“I have two stepsons in college, and they’re staying at school,” White says. “If I were planning a spring break for them, I’d rent a condo or beach house for the friends they’re always with now and tell them to be very strict. It wouldn’t be in a crowded area like Miami, either.”
Don’t assume vaccination means you can go anywhere. If you’ve already been vaccinated, your risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 is a lot lower. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get it -- and there’s no conclusive research yet about whether you might be able to spread the virus to others. New CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people still recommend avoiding medium or large gatherings and delaying travel.
Vaccination also brings up the notion of equity, says Rivera. “You’re not traveling in a vacuum -- you may be protected, but are you considering your destination? Vaccines aren’t being equally distributed, and health care infrastructure isn’t equally equipped.”
Ultimately, deciding whether or not to travel should have to do with your risk factors for COVID-19 as well as the risk levels of everyone in your quarantine bubble and your travel bubble. If you live with an elderly, unvaccinated person, for instance, you might not feel comfortable going anywhere. Or you might drive somewhere fairly remote where you won’t interact with anyone, but you should avoid places likely to attract crowds or put off meeting up with friends you haven’t seen in a year or more.
“Getting out, changing the scenery, changing your pace, changing your physical environment -- it’s so good for you,” says Rivera. There are ways to do it, but “we don't exist in little bubbles by ourselves,” she says. “The decisions that we make as individuals can have an effect on people around us. So while we want to focus on our health, we also want to make sure that we're not causing harm to others.”