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How to Travel and Commute Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak, According to Experts

Photo: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In light of the Omicron variant and at the urging of public-health experts, the CDC has updated its mask guidelines. The agency’s new standards stress that fabric masks are the least protective against COVID-19, whereas well-fitting N95, KN95, and KF94 masks — which use special nonwoven materials with an electric charge to block tiny aerosol particles — do a much better job of stopping the virus’s spread. Of course, any mask is better than no mask, but since this article was last updated in December 2021, we’ve talked to doctors, scientists, and public-health experts to help you find the best and most protective of the bunch. So whether you’re looking for a comfortable N95 you can wear on a plane, a child-size KF94KN95 masks your teenager can wear to school, or advice on double masking, we can help.

Even as the rate of fully vaccinated Americans exceeds 60 percent, the number of people infected with the coronavirus in the U.S. is once again rising. The country is averaging 120,000 new cases per day, with the Delta variant still causing regional surges and the newer Omicron variant an increasing threat. But with the holidays just a week away, travel is also on the rise, which raises the question: What is the safest way to do that amid an ongoing pandemic?

To find out, we checked in with a handful of experts — including Dr. Waleed Javaid, the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown; Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious-disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital; Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America; Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist with NYU Langone Health and an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Network; and Dr. Syra Madad, an American pathogen preparedness expert and epidemiologist. We also spoke to many of the same experts in March 2020, around the time the coronavirus epidemic became a global pandemic, and again in July 2020.

Much of the advice they gave us back then — like wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, and keeping hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and tissues close at hand — remains in place. But now, more than a year into the pandemic, the doctors shared some new best practices for travel and commuting. Arguably the most important: Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated should get the vaccine as soon as possible. And even though it’s less likely that vaccinated people will contract COVID-19 or spread it, it’s not impossible, so you should continue to wear a mask and keep a safe social distance whenever possible.

In addition, each doctor stressed that just because they are advising on the safest way to travel and commute amid the pandemic, that doesn’t mean they endorse actually traveling and commuting amid the pandemic if you don’t need to. “Trips should still be very limited,” Javaid says. “If you don’t have to travel, don’t.” According to Parikh, “the risk of contracting COVID or one of the more contagious variants increases when you travel because you don’t know how many people around you have been vaccinated and we haven’t quite hit herd immunity yet.” She says we should still keep our guard up — wear masks, social-distance, and stay home if you feel sick. If you do have to travel out of town, it’s a good idea to check the infection rates of your destination first. Glatt says, “The more cases in the place you’re traveling to, the more likely it is that you will encounter somebody that’s positive or one of the variants. For example, traveling to Brazil comes with different risks than traveling to Buffalo, and people should be aware of those risks and take appropriate precautions.” You should also consult with your individual airline and check local COVID regulations if traveling internationally about what kind of proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results you will need to present at the airport.

The CDC has also updated its guidelines for traveling and gathering during the holidays. They include getting vaccinated, wearing masks, practicing social distancing, gathering outdoors when possible, and using a self-test before joining indoor gatherings with people outside your household. If you are not fully vaccinated, it’s recommended that you don’t travel. If you’ve tested positive for COVID and haven’t finished isolating — even if you are fully vaccinated — the CDC also recommends postponing or canceling travel. It’s recommended you get a COVID test three to five days after traveling, and those who are unvaccinated are recommended to quarantine for seven full days, even if they test negative for COVID at three to five days.

Should you choose to travel or commute, below are the products our experts say you need to do so safely, in order of importance.

$10 for 50

As we noted above, the doctors insist that wearing a mask in public, and while traveling and commuting, is the best thing for your own health and the health of everyone around you. Glatt says this guidance even applies to people living in areas where the transmission rate is currently low. “Because of the way we can travel in this country, you just don’t know [if those around you have come from a high-endemic area].” We’re still seeing increasing cases in the United States, so it’s reasonable for people to be extra careful even if they are vaccinated because it might make the people around them feel more comfortable. As he points out, “Some people don’t have the option of being vaccinated for whatever the reason and they’re nervous.”

We’ve been extensively reviewing masks since the pandemic began, and this pack of 50 breathable masks (which is a staff favorite) will ensure that you always have backups, should one break or be damaged. (Javaid tells us he keeps backup masks in his car for that very reason.) The masks’ three-ply fabric construction and flexible metal nose band provide more protection than the average disposable mask, and their thinner material will be less uncomfortable in the heat. For extra protection while traveling or commuting Javaid, Parikh, and Glatt all recommend double masking. If you’re looking for sustainable mask options, you can find a variety of reusable styles in our stories about the 28 face masks we’ve tested, our editors’ favorite masks, the best masks for kids, the best masks for running, and the best masks for impressing the fashion set.