The coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread to at least 177 countries—including the United States, which now has the most confirmed cases in the world. On March 11, President Trump restricted travel from many European countries in an effort to slow the transmission of the respiratory disease. The CDC and the U.S. State Department have also released travel advisories for other at-risk places, including an advisory asking New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut residents to avoid nonessential travel until mid-April.
Given these restrictions, travelers might wonder if it’s safe to fly. Here's a rundown on the latest coronavirus travel advisories so you can decide whether you should be canceling flights. Experts also weigh in on precautions to take when traveling during the coronavirus outbreak.
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Coronavirus Travel Advisories in Europe
The CDC has recommended limiting all nonessential travel, and Trump's travel restrictions from European countries began at midnight on Friday, March 13. They're scheduled to last for 30 days, so if you have a planned trip to Europe, contact your airline for information about refunds and exchanges.
According to the White House, foreign nationals who have visited certain European countries during the past 14 days can't come to America. Affected countries include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, San Marino, the United Kingdom, and Vatican City.
"While these new travel restrictions will be disruptive to some travelers, this decisive action is needed to protect the American public from further exposure to the potentially deadly coronavirus," said Chad F. Wolf, Acting Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in a statement.
Naturally, Americans who are currently overseas—as well as Europeans with vacation plans to America— are trying to figure out solutions. However, according to the DHS, the restrictions don't apply to U.S. citizens. They'll be able to return to certain airports with the capacity to conduct medical screenings—and they may need to self-quarantine for 14 days.
CDC "Level Three" Travel Advisories
In an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC and the U.S. State Department have issued a "level three" status—which means you should avoid all nonessential travel to them—on all international destinations. While early travel advisories were on China, South Korea, and Iran, the widespread transmission of COVID-19 has forced global restrictions.
Since many countries have widespread coronavirus outbreaks, the CDC has released an overarching Global Outbreak Notice as well. Check it out here.
Is It Safe to Fly Somewhere Without Restrictions?
Americans obviously need to cancel their upcoming vacation plans to Europe, and they should avoid traveling to places with CDC-issued advisories. But what about if you made spring break or summer vacation plans domestically?
Unfortunately there’s much uncertainty regarding this respiratory illness that shares similar symptoms as the flu, according to Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. There’s also no current vaccine or treatment (although medical experts are working on it).
President Trump has recommended that Americans avoid “discretionary travel’’ for two weeks, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and has asked people to stay home when possible, and the CDC has since posted an advisory for travel within the U.S., asking people to take more considerations before traveling. On March 20, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that this social distancing could continue for "several weeks," and on March 29, Trump formally asked Americans to continue social distancing until at least April 30.
At the end of the day, “You have to make a personal decision about the risk you're taking,” says Dr. Wahrman. Traveling to areas with few or no coronavirus cases is generally low risk, since person-to-person transmission is highly unlikely. But keep in mind that the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the coronavirus a global risk assessment of "pandemic." There’s no way to predict the spread of the coronavirus. A large outbreak could possibly happen anywhere at anytime, and if it's big enough, you may be quarantined.
What’s more, since experts still don't know much about the disease, it’s possible that “you could be asymptomatic and still contagious,” says Dr. Wahrman. This means someone you encounter might look perfectly healthy but is actually carrying the coronavirus. “Just be aware of the things you've been in contact with that could carry viruses and bacteria from other people,” says Dr. Wahrman.
How Can I Prevent Coronavirus While Traveling?
Again, you have to weigh the risks of traveling; the odds of coronavirus transmission at an airport or in an airplane is unknown. The coronavirus is likely spread through airborne droplets, like from a cough or a sneeze, but it may also be able to live on surfaces—and potentially infect someone who touches that surface and then their eyes, nose, or mouth—hours or even days later. According to a February 2020 article from The New York Times, the airborne droplets might travel up to three feet. You’d likely need to touch contaminated surfaces or sit very close to sick patients to catch the coronavirus, but it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions.
The CDC now recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, and that would definitely apply on an airplane. However, the most important thing is still maintaining proper hand hygiene. “Wash your hands with soap and water—especially before eating and touching your face," says Kathleen DiCaprio, Ph.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse with water, and thoroughly dry with a clean paper towel.
There are also some ways to prevent transmission when traveling by plane. Use alcohol-based sanitizer or disinfectant wipes on items other people have touched, such as tray tables and armrests. Also take measures when going through security, when “your stuff touches bins that held other people’s stuff and could pick up germs,” says Dr. Wahrman. She recommends bringing a few clear Ziploc bags, and then sticking your items in these bags before putting them in the bins.
Finally, “if you see that there's somebody who looks visibly sick, try to create a little distance,” says Dr. Wahrman. This might be easy in waiting rooms and baggage claim, but not so much if you’re stuck next to a sick person on the plane. In that case, Dr. Wahrman says you might want to bring along a face mask if you're at high risk.
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The Bottom Line
You're not technically required to cancel your plans (as long as they're domestic), but nonessential travel should mostly be avoided—and rescheduled or canceled—to help slow the spread of COVID-19. "At this point, people who are traveling or plan to in the future should be aware of the certain travel restrictions and periodically check the CDC website on these restrictions. It may be helpful to check for any updates from the airlines and/or the airports they are arriving to or departing from as well," says Dr. DiCaprio.