Traveling, One Year Later

Around this time last year, COVID-19 was starting to sweep across the globe, with major countries such as China having already declared complete lockdowns and initiated travel bans. Eventually, the virus overwhelmed the United States, and the country was quickly advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to take action on their safety guidelines — including travel bans.

By this time, however, many citizens were already stuck overseas. Business conferences were canceled, shipments were delayed, and there was not a clear path to resuming travel, safely. Charter flights were arranged for citizens to return to the U.S. as many international airports closed and flights were continuously canceled.

Nearly one year later, travel has mostly resumed, but with new protocols in mind. The requirements of negative COVID-19 tests within 48 hours, along with masks, social distancing, and sanitizing stations throughout airports and public transportation hubs, as well as contact-free security screenings, have been added to the lives of travelers. Airports have requirements and guidelines for passengers to familiarize themselves with before travel. There is still a federal mask mandate — masks are required on all forms of public transportation, per the CDC.

And while the CDC still recommends avoiding travel, they provide detailed instructions and notes on what must be done if travel is necessary. In general, people have started to feel more comfortable traveling both for work-related reasons, as well as personal reasons — most notably vacations this past summer and the holiday season, along with plans for the upcoming spring break.

The changes implemented by the federal government, airlines and airports are what caused these travelers to have more confidence and encouragement to travel again, said Isidore Udoh, a DePaul public health adjunct professor. He continued to add that these changes ensure the control of the virus and allow for the travel industry to remain open for business, along with providing security for those who work in it.

These changes won’t just be for the remainder of the pandemic, Udoh said, but rather here for the long haul.

“Even as the vaccine distribution gets underway, the emphasis, globally and locally, on sanitation by travelers and the travel industry will likely persist into the future,” Udoh said. “In the medium  and long term, travel will likely change from what we are familiar with.”

Udoh added that sanitation will become a permanent concern for both travelers and the industry, and new technology providing limited personal contact between travelers and workers will likely be developed. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccines may become a travel requirement as they become more widely available.

Robin Heggum, also an adjunct public health professor at DePaul, added that these new changes in travel will allow for people to be more cautious of their travels.

“A cautious population of people is now considering the COVID rates of where they’re going,” Heggum said. “In the long term, people may be cautious and conscientious and make sure they have received necessary travel vaccinations and checked disease and transmission rates for where they’re headed.”

Like Udoh, Heggum believes a lot of these changes are here to stay.

Heggum said because of the pandemic, there is greater awareness of viruses and how they spread, and this awareness will make people want to continue wearing masks.

“You might as well wear a mask. You don’t want to get a cough or the flu, and a mask prevents you from that, as well as touching your face,” Heggum said. “I think we’ll still be wearing masks, especially when in confined situations such as trains and buses in the years to come.”

Heggum said that strict policies are key in making sure safety guidelines are followed — especially concerning travel. As reference, she mentioned how at first, airlines were only recommending masks for their passengers, but now, it is a federal policy.

“We’re not going to stop everyone from doing things, but we’re going to educate them on how to do it correctly, so it brings the risk down.”

Despite this, as someone within the public health field, Heggum knows there will always be those to refute the guidelines.

“It’s similar to drunk drivers who say it’s only a couple of drinks, or teenagers who don’t believe they’ll get pregnant and have unprotected sex, or ‘I’m just going to try one line of cocaine, I won’t get addicted.’”

“In public health, health promotion, and public education, we’re used to this,” Heggum said, adding that they take initiatives to address these truths and misconceptions.

One method is harm reduction. “We’re not going to stop everyone from doing things,” Heggum said, “but we’re going to educate them on how to do it correctly, so it brings the risk down.”

Heggum understands that with COVID-19, it is not practical to be in complete isolation, which is why different harm reduction strategies such as wearing masks, washing hands and sanitizing were implemented by public health professionals. While it is not 100% effective, it plays a key role in significantly bringing the risk down.

“We’re never going to get to 0%,” Heggum said. “Our teen pregnancy rate is never going to be zero. Our AIDS rate is never going to be zero. Our COVID-19 transmission rate is never going to be zero. But can we shrink it down?”

Yes, Heggum thinks.

In public health, Heggum said, they use the word “endemic.” They want to know how much of something will happen in a year. For example, Heggum said when COVID-19 first came around, it was being compared to the flu, with a standard and predictable death rate — which was quickly debunked as the pandemic grew.

“The flu was endemic,” Heggum said. “We could predict how many people were going to get it, how many people were going to get it severely, and how to be safe from it — by taking the flu shot.” This is the goal for COVID-19 in the future.

Until COVID-19 hits that endemic state, people across the country are brainstorming potential trips as the weather gets nicer. A January report from travel research firm Destination Analysts found that travelers are looking for scenic locations, outdoor warm weather activities and beach destinations the most with their trips in 2021.

DePaul freshman Edie Lenoard was one of those who took a trip over the summer.

“I took the Amtrak train in July to Milwaukee to meet my roommate before we were supposed to move in together,” Leonard recalled. “I honestly felt a little guilty, but I just wanted to get to know my roommate face-to-face before we moved in together.”

Leonard, who is from the Chicago suburbs, said that it was a fairly short train ride — about an hour and a half. It was because of the relatively short distance and method of travel that she felt comfortable making the trip.

“It was like a commuter train, so I didn’t feel entirely awful,” Leonard said. “I think I would feel bad if I went on a plane and took a full-fledged vacation to a resort or hotel, but since I did travel, I’m not inclined to make that judgment.”

Senior Jillian Morrison took a week-long vacation with her family this past summer. She states that her family took what they believed to be the necessary precautions: they used their car to travel, wore masks in public and stayed generally distant from other families. It was an outdoor trip, Morrison recalled, so they were not entering confined areas and the risk was fairly low.

Health experts have ruled that outdoor activities tend to have a lower risk overall, due to the easier ability to social distance and better ventilation than activities or trips indoors. While there’s still no perfect way to reduce risk entirely, like Heggum pointed out, traveling in a small pod that has quarantined together to a non-crowded outdoor location seems to be the safest bet.

Morrison said that more recently, her family proposed a trip to Puerto Rico for spring break — which she promptly declined.

“I felt it would be irresponsible for us to travel to a ‘destination’ vacation spot for spring break especially considering that I would be unable to quarantine myself on both ends due to my work commitments.”

Morrison is personally against traveling during the pandemic unless it can be done in an outdoor setting where there is a low risk of transmission.

“With many states having removed their mask mandates recently, I feel more nervous about travel and our country’s ability to keep cases on the decline,” Morrison said.

Some haven’t traveled at all, such as freshman Allison Rotsein.

“Although I want to, the main reason I haven’t traveled is because I don’t need to,” Rotsein said. “I would rather be bored out of my mind in the comfort of my home than having a blast in foreign cities and potentially putting myself and others in unnecessary danger,”

In the future, Heggum said, when COVID-19 is endemic, people should understand and recognize that they are interdependent.

“When on public transport, keeping a safe distance, making sure those around you are vaccinated, sanitizing, and keeping clean when necessary,” Heggum said. “We shouldn’t come away as this becoming a barrier in society to interpersonal relationships.”


Header image by Phoebe Nerem