Summer is almost upon us. But while the heat and humidity will be familiar, “this is going to be a very different type of summer,” says Amira Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
The country may be reopening, but the risk of COVID-19 remains. Until a vaccine is developed, this is a reality Americans will “have to contend with every time they step outside,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.
This new reality extends to vacation plans. Over the new few months, many Americans will weigh whether a trip makes sense. “I don’t think either answer is right or wrong,” Adalja says. “It depends on each person’s hierarchy of values.” If you are considering taking a vacation, experts say renting a home can be a relatively safe way to do it, provided the proper precautions are taken.
Start with a cost-benefit analysis. While summer vacations are an important tradition for many, “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID, as there is community spread across the country,” says Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
There are ways to mitigate your risk of getting infected or unwittingly spreading COVID-19 to others. Driving to a destination, for example, allows you to reduce your exposure compared with flying or taking public transportation.
Similarly, a vacation rental—which doesn’t require interaction in public spaces and often allows for remote check-ins—can be a safer option than a hotel. Once you’ve settled into a vacation property, “it’s the same as your own home, where you can control all the exposures,” says Jack Caravanos, Dr.P.H., M.S., clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health.
Here are the steps to take to minimize the risks.
Research Local Infection Rates
There are at least two points to consider when it comes to your choice of destination. The first is whether you might pose a risk to others. If you are traveling from a place with a high rate of COVID-19 but are set on getting away, plan to observe a strict quarantine for at least two weeks before you go or after you arrive. (Take your own groceries and supplies.) The second is whether the COVID-19 situation is uncontrolled or getting worse where you are going, which might not make it a great time to visit.
You can monitor the coronavirus situation at your desired destination by checking your state health department’s website, the John Hopkins University case database, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s seven-day reports, or CovidExitStrategy.org, which provides information on trends within each state, including the rate of positive test results.
Remember that these trends can change quickly, which is why you’ll be best off with a vacation plan that does not count on much time being out and about in the local community.
Check Regulations and Restrictions
The CDC’s State & Territorial Health Department Websites page has links to departments that should list information on regulations that apply to visitors, such as mandatory quarantine orders (in place through July 31 in Hawaii, for example) or restrictions on short-term rentals. The rental company Airbnb has also put together a directory of local travel restrictions.
Even if you are traveling to a state that does not list any travel restrictions, check county and city health department sites. Some cities have extended stay-at-home orders even as their state government lifts restrictions, Roess says.
Keep in mind that some beaches and parks across the country remain closed, are only open to residents, or have strict limits on the number of visitors. (See our article on staying safe at the beach.) If you’re planning to visit a national park, you can check the National Park Service site for relevant closures.
“Restrictions are letting up, but not everywhere has full unrestricted access,” Freeman says. And any regulations are subject to change if there’s a spike in COVID-19 cases.
That’s why it’s a good idea to check the refund policy on your booking, particularly regarding the terms if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in the area or new travel restrictions are put in place. Since the declaration of the coronavirus pandemic, Airbnb, for example, does not consider changes related to COVID-19 an extenuating circumstance that would allow for a free cancellation and refund. VRBO and HomeAway are encouraging but not requiring hosts to provide travel credits to people who have to change their plans.
Travel insurance is not likely to cover these sorts of changes, either, because issues related to COVID-19 may considered “foreseeable,” according to an FAQ from the New York State Department of Finance. Consider seeking out bookings that have a flexible cancellation policy. And if you have any questions, contact the host and company directly.
Ask About Cleaning Protocols
While COVID-19 is primarily spread through close person-to-person contact, it may also spread through surfaces. Check the cleaning policies of your host or the rental company you’re using before you book.
Airbnb, for example, rolled out an optional cleaning protocol program last month, which includes the use of approved products and a mandatory 24-hour vacancy period between bookings. Hosts that commit to the protocol will receive a certificate, giving guests an added level of assurance.
That said, you should read the reviews, both for the specific property and the host’s listings in general. If you still have questions, “reach out to host and ask,” says Chekitan Dev, Ph.D., a professor of marketing and an expert on hospitality branding at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. Ideally, the host will be direct and specific about sanitation and disinfection protocols. An evasive answer provides a signal in itself.
Should you or someone in your party start exhibiting respiratory symptoms before the trip, call your doctor to see about testing and self-isolate for 14 days—even if you test negative for COVID-19, Adalja says. “We need to do a better job in general of self-isolating when we are contagious with any infectious disease,” he says. “If you have respiratory symptoms and fever, you shouldn’t be around other people unless you have to be.”
If you’re healthy, you should still make sure that on the drive to your vacation home, you make only minimal stops, practice social distancing, and wear masks and use hand sanitizer when you have to pump gas or leave the car for essentials.
Theoretically, the property should already be disinfected when you arrive, and ideally it has been empty for 24 hours or longer. But make sure what you’re seeing with your own eyes matches the host’s pretrip commitments. “Do a quick inspection: Is the counter grimy? The faucets should be sparkling,” Caravanos says.
If you want to be extra-sure or if it appears the house has not been thoroughly cleaned, do a thorough wipe-down yourself before you unpack. Make sure to clean high-touch surfaces such as counters, faucets, doorknobs, and the refrigerator handle.
Be a Respectful Visitor
Practice social distancing and wear a mask when outside the property. If your host lives on or near the property, communicate in advance that you will be keeping a distance. “Remember that this virus can be transmitted from asymptomatic individuals that may feel perfectly healthy,” Roess says.
If possible, do not permit anyone outside your household to enter the property. If you invite people over, consider a socially distant gathering that takes place outside rather than anything indoors. (The risk of transmission outdoors is lower than in enclosed spaces.)
Most vacations will require navigating other environments in addition to the rental house. A trip to the beach or park is relatively safe, Caravanos says, particularly if you can keep a distance from others and refrain from close, extended conversations with people outside your household.
Avoiding crowded places altogether is an even safer bet. If you want to visit popular spots, “go at off hours,” Adalja says, although even this won’t eliminate the risk completely. “People have to get comfortable with the idea that no activity is going to be zero-risk,” he says. “You have to learn to manage that risk; it’s going to be different for each person.”Should you or someone in your party get sick and exhibit respiratory symptoms during the trip, keep the patient isolated in a separate room, call your doctor for advice, and notify the local health department as well as the host, Freeman says.
Pay It Forward
Most property rentals include cleaning fees, so disinfecting when you’re checking out isn’t necessary—although it’s certainly a respectful gesture, especially if you were in any situations that risked exposure during your stay or if someone in your party was sick.
Once you return home, “pay it forward,” Dev says, by posting about your experience, particularly regarding cleanliness, so other guests can make an informed decision about renting the property.