Buckle up—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
There’s still so much we don’t know about COVID-19, except that it’s probably not going away any time too soon. We’ll likely still be dealing with the coronavirus pandemic on some level come fall. What that looks like exactly, in general, and in terms of travel, is still anyone’s guess —but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the experts for their input, insight, and advice in between refreshing our browsers for the latest travel news, right?
We spoke to three U.S.-based infectious disease experts to get the scoop on different scenarios we might face this fall when it comes to travel, coronavirus, and a cure.
Here’s the Best-Case Scenario
The golden ticket scenario would be an effective vaccine breakthrough, gaining herd immunity, and finding some viable form of treatment. Unfortunately, reaching that trifecta by fall isn’t very realistic. Instead, here are three best-case scenarios that could actually happen and help get us back on the road to traveling.
Scenario one: we get proof that having antibodies equals some kind of immunity, which is something Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Infectious Diseases believes we could find out within the next six months or so. Scenario two: we work out an effective, easy treatment for the virus. Scenario three: the virus mutates into something that is less abrasive, less contagious, or more treatable, containable, and survivable.
Here’s the Worst-Case Scenario
Assuming we don’t have a vaccine or effective treatment by the time fall rolls around, a realistic worst-case scenario is that we don’t control the spread and the death rate goes up and up. Dr. Fichtenbaum warns that this could happen through “continued transmission, particularly in the cities where we have crowding and close contact.”
A hard-hitting, even deadlier second wave of the virus is also a worst-case possibility. While some speculate that a second wave could be caused by weather or if the virus turns out to be seasonal, Dr. Mariea Snell, assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri, warns it’s also likely in “a perfect storm” situation created when a healthcare system that is already taxed and low on things like PPE and ventilators is met with people who start to lower their guard and become less vigilant with hygiene and safety precautions.
It’s worth mentioning that while the Pandemic Flu of 1918 did have an exponentially deadlier second wave, this was not the case with SARS or MERS (which are both coronaviruses related to COVID-19). Still, most experts think a second wave is where we are headed, and if that’s the case then we probably won’t be doing too much travel this fall.
“If that happens, we’re not going to have a lot of [travel] options,” says Dr. Georgine Nanos, a physician with advanced training in epidemiology and a Master of Public Health degree. “I think the decisions will probably be made for us.” Think border closures, heavy travel restrictions, and an overall closed or struggling industry.
What About the Most Realistic Scenario?
All three doctors we talked to agreed it’s still too early to know exactly where we will be so many months ahead, though Dr. Snell and Dr. Fichtenbaum were quick to admit that they are expecting COVID-19 to continue or have a second wave in the fall, leaving our situation to pretty much mirror what we’ve been dealing with thus far. However, they are divided on how that might look.
Even though he believes we’ll still be battling the novel coronavirus in the fall, Dr. Fichtenbaum is hopeful that numbers will be at the level we’re seeing right now and won’t be any higher. “I think that’s realistic because I think we’ll be able to control a little bit of the spread of this so that it doesn’t get out of control.”
However, Dr. Snell says she’s fairly certain we’ll see an uptick in cases, and that travel, particularly air travel, will be as limited as it is now.
On the bright side, if we get through summer travel safely and things do stay the same or get better than now, it could pave the way for more (or at least a sustained level) of travel in the fall. “We may have more freedom of movement,” Dr. Nanos argues. “But we’ll probably still be expected to do a lot of the same precautionary things.”
Even If We Can Travel, It Might Not Be Safe for Everyone
The bad news is that even if it’s safer to travel in the fall, it won’t be safe for everyone until there’s a vaccine or treatment. “If it’s the same as now and we don’t have a vaccine and any viable treatment—or we have a resurgence—I would consider [the risks] the same,” cautions Dr. Snell. “If you have any immune suppression or other pre-existing conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, or COPD that’s making you more susceptible to a significant impact from COVID, I would avoid any kind of travel.”
Want a second opinion? You’re out of luck. Dr. Nanos and Dr. Fichtenbaum have the same advice for folks in vulnerable populations: think twice about traveling this fall.
“It’s always a risk when you’re going outside of your bubble or your community,” explains Dr. Nanos. “I would say [anyone at risk] should have a discussion with their physician and really think about what the possible scenarios are and get advice.”
Where Should We Go? What Can We Do?
We hope you like driving and spending time outdoors because even in a best-case scenario, all three experts suggest sticking to domestic travel, preferably via car. Dr. Snell specifically warns against traveling to big, densely populated areas, especially travel hubs—“that’s why places like California and New York were hit so hard [with coronavirus]” she says. “Those are things that I would expect to see again, and where I would avoid in terms of travel.”
This means we should be looking at trips outside of major cities and where it’s possible to keep social distancing: road trips, camping excursions, outdoor recreation, roadside attractions, national parks, and national monuments. We know, it sounds a lot like what everyone recommended for summer. If the idea of more domestic travel has got you glum, try to keep in mind that one traveler’s domestic destination is another traveler’s international destination; foreign travelers pay good money to travel in each of our backyards. Plus, fall is leaf-peeping season in many regions around the world, giving you the gorgeous opportunity to plan memorable fall foliage road trips, hikes, and local getaways.
“I would love to say that people are going to feel really safe traveling outside of the country in the fall,” Dr. Nanos adds, “but I don’t know that we are necessarily going to get there.”
Here’s the Deal With Holiday Travel
The fall months mark several traditional celebrations around the globe that call together gatherings of family and friends, such as Día de Muertos in Mexico, the Moon Festivals in China and Vietnam, and the Diwali festival of lights in India. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Can we look forward to celebrating these holidays with loved ones? “That’s totally going to depend on where the virus is at that moment in time,” says Dr. Nanos, who advises waiting at least two weeks before the holiday kicks off to schedule possible travel. It’s basically going to be a waiting game to see if emerging hotspots, cancellations, and restrictions pop up.
When we travel, we bring the risk of all of our exposures with us, putting friends, family, and strangers at our destinations at risk, too. For this reason, Dr. Fichtenbaum cautions anyone thinking about holiday travel (or fall travel in general) to be cognizant of our exposures to other people and places in the time leading up to travel. “There will be some risks because of the interactions that people have to have within their community,” he says. “[Whether it’s] going to get gas at the gas station or going to the pharmacy.” He also suggests limiting exposure by opting to travel by car, if possible.
Here Are Some of the Unknown Risks
We hate to say it, but one of the biggest unknown risks involved with traveling in a COVID-19 world is going to be other travelers. We have to trust that they won’t travel if they are feeling sick, that they haven’t been exposed to someone who is carrying the virus, they aren’t dodging temperature checks with Tylenol, and that they have been as fastidious as we have been for ourselves.
But what if we find out antibodies do equal immunity? Dr. Snell points out that just because someone may have antibodies that protect them from contracting the virus, it doesn’t mean they still can’t transmit it to others. “Maybe it’s not going to be that you cough on someone and they get it or that it’s in your saliva,” she says. ”But if you aren’t still practicing the same precautions, like proper handwashing and handling of goods and packages, then you definitely would be at risk for transmitting it. That’s definitely a truth.”
It’s also true that only time will tell if the extra precautions hotels and airlines are taking to protect us from the virus will work. Even with HEPA filters, masks, disinfectants, and adequate spacing (if it even happens), if you sit next to someone who is infected your risk goes up, way up.
Are the risks worth it? “As long as we have the freedom to move around it’s an individual choice,” says Dr. Nanos. “And it really depends on what kind of risk people are willing to tolerate to travel—as long as you’re not putting other people at risk, obviously.”