I Went on a Road Trip During the Pandemic: Here’s What Did and Didn’t Feel Safe

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Photos: Jess Lander; Graphic: W+G Creative
In June, my husband and I embarked on a two-week road trip through five states. In pre-pandemic times, we traveled often, but given safety concerns regarding air travel and lack of ability to travel internationally even if we did feel comfortable assuming that risk, hitting the road felt like the safest and most dependable way for us to get away for a bit. And we're in good company, with RV travel reportedly way up, year over year.

In preparation for our trip, we loaded up on masks and hand sanitizer, planned to avoid large cities, and resolved to stick to outdoor attractions. Of course, given that we were choosing not to self-isolate and stay at home, no number of precautions we could take would completely protect us from the possibility of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Nonetheless, after preparing to a degree we saw fit, we felt comfortable embarking on our trip.

Experts In This Article
  • Waleed Javaid, MD, Waleed Javaid, MD, is an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

That said, we didn't necessarily feel comfortable with every experience that ensued during the trip. From gas-station bathrooms to hiking in a national park and everything between, here's what I can share, firsthand, about road trip safety during the pandemic.

Road trip safety during the pandemic: Here's what did and didn't feel safe:

1. Masking protocol—in certain states

Mask guidelines felt like the most obvious differentiator regarding road trip safety among states we visited. We came from California, where everyone had been required to wear masks when in public spaces. Oregon, where we went next, seemed to operate similarly. But as we headed north and east and crossed over borders, safety protocols visibly loosened.

In Washington, all employees at the businesses I visited wore masks, but only about half the people who were out and about did, despite state orders to do so. In Idaho, where people were encouraged to wear masks despite no state-ordered mandate officially proclaiming such, employees at restaurants and bars were masked up, but not many other people did. And in Montana, masks-wearers were few and far between (a state directive to wear masks inside and during certain outdoor activities was issued in July, after I completed my trip).

I now realize I could have avoided a number of instances when I didn't feel safe regarding masking policies in a certain area simply by doing more research beforehand. Information is readily available about virus rates and mask policies for states and certain cities, and both factors are constantly changing.

“Be aware of where you’re going. Knowing what’s out there, knowing the numbers, and what the situation is is really important." —infectious disease specialist Waleed Javaid, MD

Doing this preliminary research—and checking the status of the findings right before the trip starts—is crucial for road trip safety, as awareness is the single-most important rule for traveling during the pandemic, according to infectious disease specialist Waleed Javaid, MD. “Be aware of where you’re going. Knowing what’s out there, knowing the numbers, and what the situation is is really important,” he says, adding that in addition to understanding virus numbers and mask policies, understanding current laws for each state is key, given that you may be required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival and possibly once you return home, as well.

2. Hotels

As an avid Airbnb customer who understands that a number of hosts are committed to providing safe and clean facilities for travelers during the pandemic, on a personal level, opting for a hotel room felt more appealing to me. So, I carefully chose boutique lodging that didn’t have hundreds of rooms or long, tight hallways, where germs can linger.

At The Finch in Walla Walla, Washington, for example, the only contact I had with the staff was upon check-in and when I went to grab a cup of coffee one morning from the lobby. For this, the desk attendant took on the role of barista, so that guests didn’t have to touch anything but their own cup. No one entered our room during our stay for cleaning, and the hotel even texted me throughout the stay to see if we needed anything. The checkout process was also done via text.

The Camp, a chic vintage trailer park in Bend, Oregon, was another great option because we had our very own airstream to stay in. There were only about a dozen other trailers, all spread out, and we never even encountered another person up close—guests or staff. My one issue here was that the showers were, for lack of room in the trailers, communal. This made me feel a bit uneasy and so I skipped a few days.

Whether you’re staying in a resort, hotel, vacation rental, or at a campground, Dr. Javaid urges that you ask for specifics on how the property is keeping guests safe before booking. “Ask about their policies about social distancing, how they clean, how they clean before and after someone was in the rooms, and how they maintain it,” he says.

3. Restaurants, breweries, and wineries

Almost every single place we went for food and drink had safety protocols dialed in. Most restaurants were available by reservation-only (which minimized crowding and foot traffic from walk-in guests), and many blocked off half of their tables to allow for proper distancing between parties. Wineries were also by appointment, with spaced-out tables. At Beaux Frères Vineyards & Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for instance, we had our own private picnic table with no one else in sight. The winery also curated pre-poured flights of wine in order to limit contact between guest and host.

The breweries we visited, which were not reservation-only, felt safest to me. Each of the 10 we visited had signage everywhere to remind patrons of social-distancing guidelines, plexiglass in front of the order stations, and one-way lanes for order and pickup, to minimize human contact.

4. Some hiking trails

In general, hiking at state parks, including Glacier National Park, felt like a safe activity. But, likely as a result of messaging that outdoor activities are among the least risky for virus transmission, it seemed as though we were hardly the only people who thought to hike.

Unsurprisingly, national and state parks were much more crowded than less popular trails. In fact, we didn't hike Glacier National Park on our first attempt because it was already at capacity that day. (We made it in the next morning by arriving before 9 a.m. and just managed to snag a parking spot at the trailhead.) Few people were donning marks, and certain spots felt too busy at certain junctures. We did our best to step off the trail to let people pass in these instances, but, ultimately, I felt safest when we went a bit out of our way to find the trails less traveled, plus, it’s pretty great when you have nature all to yourself. We also found that going later in the afternoon and taking advantage of the long summer days resulted in a lot fewer people on the trails.

5. Beaches

“Anything that’s crowded, you should avoid,” says Dr. Javaid. “People forget how close we can get with each other, especially on hiking trails or the beaches."

“Anything that’s crowded, you should avoid. People forget how close we can get with each other, especially on hiking trails or the beaches." —Dr. Javaid

To force distance from others, we bought inner tubes, which became our safe space. We used them to float in the freezing waters of Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, far away from the busy shores. We floated on Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho; down the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon; and at Lake Tahoe, California, removing ourselves once again from crowded beaches.

The water felt like a protective bubble, where social distancing was easily achieved. One day, we switched out the accessory for kayaking and paddleboarding (on our own; not with a group), which provided for a similar effect.

6. Gas-station bathrooms

Even before the pandemic, I tried to avoid service station bathrooms. But with road trip safety front and center in my mind during this journey, I found many of these spaces to be more crowded than usual, with people waiting in line (not six feet apart) to use them.

That said, Dr. Javaid says public restrooms aren’t necessarily high-risk, especially if you don’t remove your mask while inside. He’s more concerned with restrooms being crowded, meaning as long as you mask and sanitize appropriately, you can feel better than I did about gas station bathrooms. But, you may want to avoid spots that are right off busy highways, especially during peak times.

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