Are you traveling outside of Massachusetts this Thanksgiving? If so, the coronavirus pandemic brings added considerations this year, say medical and travel experts.
“You just have to take enough precautions to make sure that you’re safe and those around you are safe as well,” said Lauren Gibney, a travel advisor for Protravel International, which has offices in Boston and Needham.
When Boston.com asked readers whether they will travel for Thanksgiving this year, many said ‘no,’ but others said ‘yes,’ they’ll take out-of-state trips by plane or car. Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned that large, traditional Thanksgiving celebrations could spread the virus and the state’s guidelines for safely celebrating Thanksgiving include keeping gatherings small, following Massachusetts travel orders, wearing masks, and social distancing.
Ahead, local medical and travel professionals offer six tips for traveling out of state this Thanksgiving.
1. Ask yourself if you should travel at all
Assess the risks before you travel, said Dr. Kimon Zachary, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“When contemplating travel, people should ask themselves, ‘What is my risk of being infected in the first place?’” said Zachary. “They need to think about whether they have life circumstances that put them at reasonable risk of being infected, especially in these times when community prevalence is rising to an alarming degree.”
Ask yourself: Have I been social distancing? Do I have frequent contact with multiple members of the public, which increases the risk of infection? Zachary said. Something else you should ask yourself, he said: “If I do get infected, what are the risks of my friends and relatives having severe disease and getting into real medical trouble?”
If anyone at your destination is older and has significant medical problems that puts them at higher risk, then “you should really think twice about the whole enterprise,” he said.
2. Get a COVID-19 test, but remain vigilant
“If you can get tested before traveling, that’s helpful,” Zachary said. “And if your hosts are able to get tested as well, that’s helpful. But we need to keep in mind that tests are a snapshot and it’s possible to test negative one day and be contagious the next day and be contagious without knowing it.”
The COVID-19 antigen tests are not as good as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at picking up low levels of virus, Zachary noted.
“There is a school of thought which says if the virus level is so low that the antigen test does not pick it up, then you’re probably not contagious,” he said. “The problem is, that may be true in that moment in time, but you might be on the way up.”
There’s also the possibility of getting infected in the community after you test, Zachary said, and urged all travelers to follow the CDC guidelines.
Travelers can get information about testing through their health care provider or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health website. Massachusetts also offers a free Stop the Spread testing program, in addition to roughly 250 testing sites across the state.
3. Research state COVID-19 travel restrictions
“Moving between states is definitely one of the most difficult things that we’re facing,” said Matt Kurkowski, director of growth and marketing for Boston travel company Bernard & Hawkes, which specializes in New England travel.
It’s essential that travelers remain up-to-date on COVID-19 travel restrictions before crossing state lines, he said, so his company provides links to the restrictions for all six New England states on its website. No matter what state you are traveling to, travelers should know that COVID-19 travel restrictions are subject to change at any time, the experts say.
“As an advisor, I’m checking the restrictions every day to be sure I’m on top of it,” Gibney said.
For example, Massachusetts residents are no longer exempt from Maine’s quarantine or negative test requirement, Gibney said, so if you are traveling from Massachusetts to Maine, you now have to quarantine for 14 days or receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival.
“You also need to check the restrictions for Massachusetts as a returning resident,” Gibney said. “That’s one thing some people don’t necessarily think of.”
Massachusetts residents returning home must quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival unless returning from the lower-risk states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Hawaii, Gibney said, and violators face a $500 fine.
“Your trip might end on the day after Thanksgiving, but the state might require you to quarantine for two weeks,” Kurkowski said. “Do you have a place to do that? Do you have the ability to do that at home? Is your work schedule going to allow you to do that? So crossing state lines definitely introduces a whole set of complexities. So we recommend, if you can, to avoid it.”
4. Make lower-risk travel choices
It is safest to travel with members of your own household in your own private vehicle, Zachary said. Also, you should carry hand sanitizer and be mindful of keeping your hands as clean as possible.
“If you are wearing reusable masks, I would recommend changing them at least once a day,” he said.
Travelers taking public transportation should seek sparsely populated, well-ventilated modes of transport that allow for social distancing, Zachary said. When traveling by air, you can book with an airline that is blocking middle seats, such as Delta Air Lines, to achieve more social distance, Gibney said.
No matter what form of public transportation you take, refrain from eating and drinking because it requires removing your mask, Zachary said.
“We do know that indoor dining at restaurants, including at restaurants in an airport, are higher risk situations, so you want to avoid that as well,” Zachary said.
If you book a hotel, it’s a good idea to contact the business beforehand to ask what safety measures are in place, Gibney said, as well as what amenities are open and closed. Hotels can also provide helpful information about dining in the community, such as which restaurants are using outside heaters, Kurkowski said. Also, it’s a good idea to check your destination’s social media pages for information about how local businesses are handling the crisis, he said.
5. Share a Thanksgiving meal as safely as possible
Gathering with extended family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner will be challenging, Zachary said. His family usually travels to Connecticut and will not do so this year due to the virus, he said.
“The highest risk of transmission is going to be when people are eating and drinking together — any circumstances in which the masks are going to come off,” Zachary said.
Everyone should wear masks and social distance throughout the visit, he said.
“If you decide that you are going to take the risk to get together with another household for Thanksgiving dinner, then members of each household should ideally be in separate rooms,” Zachary said.
Otherwise, there’s a higher likelihood that the rules will be broken, he said.
“If you can [eat] outdoors, that, of course, is better,” he said.
6. Have an action plan should you get sick
Have a plan in place if you get sick at your destination, Zachary said.
“It’s always good advice, but we don’t necessarily think of it for a weekend trip to visit family,” Zachary said. “But we do need to think about that in these times.”
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