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Will COVID-19 ruin your travel plans? Follow these 3 tips

If you have been thinking twice about traveling anywhere during the global spread of novel coronavirus, you’re not alone.

After top U.S. health officials warned last week that the spread of COVID-19 “might be bad,” many Americans began to ponder whether it was safe to take upcoming vacations and work trips. Since then, cases have cropped up in Washington state, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and California — some of which are linked to travel. Governments, companies and institutions have also taken new actions to limit the spread of the illness.

Italy, South Korea and Iran were added to the U.S.’s list of places to avoid nonessential travel. A month ago, just as the public was learning about the virus, the State Department warned travelers not to go to China.

Fears about COVID-19 spreading in places where large crowds gather prompted the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, to keep its doors closed for a second day on Monday. The U.S. National Symphony Orchestra cancelled performances in Japan, where authorities said they will close the schools nationwide. Out of concern for “health and safety,” Facebook announced it would not hold its annual in-person F8 conference in San Jose, California, opting instead for a series of local events, videos and livestreams. And Saudi Arabia said it would ban foreign travelers from entering the kingdom for Hajj pilgrimages to Medina and Mecca to prevent the virus from spreading.

Chances are your own travel plans may be up in the air, due to the virus. So should you cancel those nonrefundable plane tickets? The PBS NewsHour asked public health and travel industry experts for advice about how to proceed.

The link between travel and COVID-19

Many Americans have begun to prepare for long-term closures and shortages due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. It’s important to think about travel plans the same way, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization issued a public health emergency of international concern about this new coronavirus, a member of the same family of viruses as the common cold, SARS and MERS. Since then, COVID-19 has sickened about 90,000 people, and roughly 3,000 people have died. More than 90 percent of people around the world who have gotten sick or died from the virus resided in China, where it originated.

In the U.S., fewer than a dozen people have caught the illness as a result of community transmission — not after traveling to affected areas or being in close contact with someone sick with a confirmed case —- meaning it is practically impossible right now to trace how the person became infected. Before the last two weeks, all of the U.S. cases were in people who had either traveled to China or lived in close contact with people who got sick after traveling. More than 80 of cases have been identified in the U.S. so far, but health officials say that number will likely rise as the virus has been circulated undetected.

Travel has helped to perpetuate the virus, said Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist who directs Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, because when individuals “who are infected then travel to a new site” they “create a nucleus” from which new cases emerge.

The travel industry hopes spring’s arrival will encourage the virus to subside, McGehee said. But public health officials have warned it is too soon to know how this illness will behave.

After the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was not as virulent as COVID-19 has already shown itself to be, the tourism industry lost billions of dollars and took three years to rebound, said Nancy McGehee, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech University. For the current health emergency, she compared projected tourism and travel industry losses to those felt in 2009 during the Great Recession. Restaurants, hotels and tourist destinations will certainly feel the pinch, and retail stores will also be caught in the virus’ ripple effects, McGehee said.

“Many American travelers are canceling international travel, not only because of fear of coronavirus, but because of the potential for either getting stuck out of the country or being a burden on the systems of other countries,” she said.

Taking smart precautions

Now, the most important thing is to remain flexible when it comes to travel, Lipkin said.

Few people in the U.S. are known to have been exposed to the virus, so “it’s really important to react appropriately, but not overreact,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, an industry lobbying group.

“The government has put forth really good guidance,” Barnes said, urging “folks to use best hygiene practices that we should be using anyway” to prevent the virus’ hold from tightening. That way, she said people can help “ensure the American public remains healthy but recognize they can continue about their daily lives and travel around the U.S.”

Traveling during an emerging public health crisis boils down to an individual decision, McGehee said.

When making their calculation to hit the road, fly or sail, McGehee encouraged the public to heed the following advice:

  1. What are public health officials saying? Pay attention to guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travel alerts can change by the hour, so frequent check-ins are wise.
  2. Thinking about buying a ticket? Check out the fine print on your purchase and on any corresponding travel insurance. McGehee says not all policies go into effect in response to a health emergency like COVID-19. Ask about your hotel or travel vendor’s cancellation policies, get it in writing and think about your Plan B if the virus upends your itenarary.
  3. Already bought your ticket? Check in with your vendor and ask what accommodations they can make. Can you postpone your plans and receive credit for a future trip?

The U.S. suggests specifically rethinking this trip

Plan to hit the high seas? The State Department has warned that Americans should “reconsider travel by cruise ship to or within Asia.”

“This is a dynamic situation and U.S. citizens traveling by ship may be impacted by travel restrictions affecting their itineraries or ability to disembark, or may be subject to quarantine procedures implemented by the local authorities,” the State Department’s website said.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Brian Salerno, senior vice president of maritime policy for the Cruise Line International Association, said cruise line operators will now conduct rigorous screening procedures for each passenger. These steps will include checking their travel history, if they have been in contact with someone who was sick with the virus, and if they have a fever or symptoms.

“I would encourage prospective passengers to keep in touch with cruise lines as screening measures are revised,” so that they aren’t left stranded in a foreign country, Salerno said.

Recently, this worst-case scenario happened for more than 3,600 passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that has been sitting in quarantine off the coast of Japan since Feb. 4. It remains there while owners figure out how to clean and disinfect the boat safely, he said. The situation is unprecedented in his years of experience in the cruise line industry, Salerno said.

Three hundred and twenty-nine Americans were evacuated from the cruise ship on Feb. 16 and were placed in quarantine at two military bases — Travis Air Reserve Base in Southern California and Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Sommer Gunia was one of those passengers.

Gunia, a surgeon who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, Steven, had planned to take the trip of a lifetime, spending Lunar New Year by cruising through East Asia on the Diamond Princess. But then they got stuck in their cabin for days, trying to kill time in isolation and hoarding the food they were brought.

After the U.S. government airlifted her to the Texas military base, she was scheduled to leave on March 2, anxious to get her life back on track. But during a morning conference call with government officials Monday, she said she was told her quarantine period would be extended and given no further information. The CDC did not immediately respond to the NewsHour’s request for comment on the extension.

The most frustrating part of her ordeal has been going days without knowing about what is happening, Gunia said.

“How do you expect us to keep sanity when you’re not telling us anything?” she said. “We need to know. We need to plan our lives.”