One of the easiest ways to protect yourself and others from Covid-19 is to simply stay home. The reason the virus has spread all over the United States is largely because of "the amount of travel that we as a country do whether by plane, or by car or train," Dr. Joshua Barocas, infectious disease physician and assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said in an Infectious Disease Society of America briefing Wednesday.
But summer is in full swing, and Fourth of July weekend is here. Though the safest thing to do may be to put your travel plans on hold, for those who are going to travel, experts agree that traveling by car is a safer option when it comes to Covid-19 transmission.
"You have a little more control of the situation on a road trip, and if you're careful, you'll have less interaction with other people than if you went to an airport or on an airplane," Dr. Amanada Castel, professor in the department of epidemiology at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, tells CNBC Make It.
However, you still have to be careful, even on a road trip.
"Just because you're going on vacation, don't let your guard down and think Covid-19 is on vacation, because it's not," Dr. Debbie Goff, infectious disease specialist and professor of pharmacy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells CNBC Make It.
With that in mind, here's a checklist of road trip safety tips from several infectious disease experts:
Goff says these are the most important "tools" to keep in your car, so you can be prepared if you have to go to a rest stop or head out in public:
It would be unwise to travel to a place where there are lots of Covid-19 infections, Dr. Jennifer Lighter, hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health, tells CNBC Make It. "I would select areas where there's not a lot of local transmission," she says. (The CDC's Covid-19 data tracker gives a clear view of Covid-19 cases by state.)
"Go to the local health department website and look and see what their requirements are," Castel says. "Are masks required? What type of dining is available? Are you going to have to quarantine for 14 days when you arrive there?" In Texas and Florida, for example, reopening has been paused due to a recent spike in cases.
And travelers arriving to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut from certain states with increased infections will be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
You should also think about worst-case scenarios, Castel says. "If someone were to get sick unfortunately during vacation, which nobody wants, but what the resources are that are available to you?"
New research suggests that Covid-19 aerosols can spread into the air when you flush a toilet. In a public bathroom, when many people are using the stalls one after another, and toilets don't have lids, this could be a concern.
But generally, "you should have the same reticence using a public bathroom as you always have," Lighter says.
The main difference now is that you should wear a mask in a rest stop or public bathroom and maintain physical distance from other people in line for the toilets.
Don't spend more than 10 minutes in the bathroom, and touch as few surfaces as you can, Dr. Sandro Cinti, professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor VA, says.
Use your foot to flush the toilet and consider using a physical barrier, such as a paper towel or glove, that you can throw away when using the faucet handles, Goff says. (Keep in mind that gloves can give you a false sense of security, and you may accidentally contaminate yourself when removing the gloves, Lighter says.)
Wash your hands appropriately with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer before you get into your car. Studies suggest that it's more effective to use a towel to dry your hands instead of the automatic hand dryer, which can spread particles further.
"If you want to be as safe as possible, the idea would be wait till you get to a hotel room or [place] where you're going to stay for the night," Cinti says. Of course, that may not be possible on a long road trip, so the bottom line is to be efficient and careful.
The gas pump is a high-touch surface, so Goff recommends wearing disposable gloves when you get gas. "If you're in an area where you can't find disposable gloves, then disinfecting wipes or paper towels you can use," she says. The goal is to have a barrier between your hands and the gas pump, so you don't have to use your bare hand.
Put the gloves on with your mask before you exit your car, then properly remove the gloves (from the inside out, being careful not to touch the contaminated outside of the gloves) when you're finished and throw them away, Goff says. Apply hand sanitizer when you're back in the car.
"What is most important is just to use hand sanitizer and wash your hands if visibly soiled," Lighter says.
Finally, you should also pay for your gas at the pump rather than inside, so you can decrease your interactions with other people, Goff says. Or wear a mask if you must go inside or interact with a gas station attendant, Cinti says.
What is a road trip without great snacks? If your trip is less than seven hours long, Goff suggests packing your own food and snacks, so you don't have to stop. "But if you don't want to do that, or your trip is longer than that, I recommend going through drive-thru and not going in a restaurant," she says. When interacting with someone in the drive-thru window, it's important to wear a mask or cloth face covering.
And if you must go into a restaurant to get food, you must wear a mask and use a barrier (gloves or a paper towel) to use high-touch surfaces, such as door handles, Goff says. "There are many people going in and out of these places," she says. "That's what you want to be very vigilant on not touching those surfaces."
Getting airflow throughout the car is a great idea. If you roll the windows down, that decreases the amount of time that virus particles could be in the air, Goff says. "Airflow movement actually is a very inexpensive, Mother Nature way of trying to decrease infections that are transmitted by respiratory secretions," she says.
That said, if someone in your vehicle is transmitting the virus, simply having the windows open isn't enough to protect you, Goff adds.
Make sure hotels are open where you could stop and stay if your trip is longer than a day, Castel says. You may need to make a reservation ahead of time.
"Get a sense of the places you're going to stay when you when you're traveling across any part of the country," Cinti says. For example, does the hotel or AirBnb follow safety and disinfectant protocol prior to your arrival?
At a hotel, limit your time in the shared spaces, such as the front desk, gym, elevator and pool, Castel says. "If you're going to stay more than one night at a hotel, then think about whether or not you want housekeeping services, for example," she says. It might be safer to forego daily in-room housekeeping to minimize the number of people who come in and out of your room, she says.
Or, if you're planning to stay at someone's home (or host people at yours), it's still important to be respectful, Goff says. Whenever someone enters your home, they are increasing the risk of infection for everyone in your household — even if they're a family member. "Keep disinfecting wipes in the bathrooms and areas where your members that are visiting are going to be," she says. "When they leave, deep-clean all the surfaces where they were."
While you might be tempted to travel with friends or meet up with far-flung family, you should only be road tripping with people who you live with, Goff says. Whether they're personal friends, people you work with or your family, you increase your odds of acquiring Covid-19 the more people you're exposed to, she says. "That's just a fact."