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

Photo: ANGELA WEISS/Getty/AFP via Getty Images

Even as reopening continues apace in some states, the number of people infected with, and dying from, the coronavirus in the U.S. is currently surging. The country is presently the global center of the pandemic (more than 57,000 new cases were reported yesterday alone, bringing our national total to nearly 3.5 million). Still, now that shelter-in-place orders have largely expired, more and more people are beginning to travel and commute near and far, which begs the question: What is the safest way to do that amid a still-roiling 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; and Dr. Syra Madad, an American pathogen preparedness expert and epidemiologist — many of whom we also spoke to in early March, around the time the coronavirus epidemic became a global pandemic.

Much of the advice they gave us back then — like maintaining social distance and keeping hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and tissues close at hand — remains in place. But now, more than three months into the pandemic, the doctors shared some new best practices for travel and commuting. Arguably the most important: Wearing a mask in transit is essential to minimize the chance of spreading and contracting COVID-19.

Importantly, 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. “Masking is always required, as is social distancing. If you don’t have to, don’t go anywhere. Even if you want to go to a grocery store, make sure you choose one where you can get everything you need.” According to Javaid, because the disease has so many asymptomatic carriers, “logic should dictate our actions. An asymptomatic carrier can infect four or five other people who then may go see people over 60, and there’s a high likelihood of those people dying.” If you do need to travel or commute, it’s a good idea to consult your local testing facility to see if they’d recommend you coming in.

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

Sfavereak Disposable Face Mask
$7 for 50
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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].” The reason masks are so important, Javaid explains, is because our nose and mouth are “portals for viruses to get into [and out of] our systems.” Because of this, Hirschwerk says that when we “find ourselves in enclosed spaces with other people, like on a subway, the best thing we can do to be kind to our fellow citizens is wear a mask.” According to Javaid, wearing a mask should not be seen as “a personal choice,” but “a public-health requirement.”

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 heat. 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.

While Javaid says that wiping down each product you bring home from the grocery store may not be necessary, he told us it’s a good idea to wipe down things like subway poles, plane armrests, bus seats, or any other surface that you’ll be in contact with for a sustained period of time while traveling or commuting. For this, Madad recommends using wipes specifically designed for disinfecting, like those from brands like Clorox and Lysol. “People think baby wipes are enough,” she told us, “but you need something with chemicals.” A note that, because both of these brands’ products are currently in high demand, we’ve seen that both the stock and price can change daily.

And back to those subway poles: Despite your gut instinct, if you’re riding on the subway while standing, or taking stairs in the station, you should still grab on to the pole or handrail, according to our experts. “The injury you’ll receive from falling because you aren’t holding on is far more severe than the chance you’ll protect yourself from infection by not touching a pole,” Hirschwerk says.

If you’re quickly traveling to and from a given place (say, to the pharmacy or grocery store), our experts recommend using hand sanitizer before and after entering those enclosed spaces. And if you don’t have or didn’t use wipes, you should use it when getting on and off subways, buses, and planes, too —especially before touching your face. According to Hirschwerk, “hand hygiene” is just as important now as it was in the early days of the pandemic, especially if you’re traveling or commuting to “areas where there are crowds of people in indoor spaces that aren’t well ventilated.” These spaces, he says, are the subject of “ongoing attention and concern” in the medical community.

While demand for hand sanitizer continues to pressure its supply, Strategist writer Tembe Denton-Hurst has written about how Megababe’s FDA-approved hand sanitizer, which has a vegan formula with 62 percent ethyl alcohol (the FDA says sanitizers are only effective if they contain 60 percent alcohol or more), is pretty consistently available. For more in-stock hand sanitizers, head here.

According to all of the doctors, it should go without saying that if you feel sick (currently recognized symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, and a loss of taste and smell), you shouldn’t be going anywhere at all. “The CDC’s recommendation remains clear,” Hirschwerk told us. “If you have an illness, you should not be in an area that can affect other individuals.” Even if you feel sick and want to see your doctor, you should always call their office first for advice on whether you should be leaving your house.

That said, sometimes you just have to cough or sneeze unexpectedly. When that moment does come, our doctors recommended having tissues to cough into. Both Hirschwerk and Madad told us that using proper cough etiquette during travel is essential, which is where pocket tissues come in. According to Madad, if you find yourself needing to cough while on the go, “cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw that in the trash. If a tissue isn’t available, sneeze into your elbow.”

Once you’re back home — or, if you’re commuting to an office, once you’ve arrived — all of our experts say you should wash your hands immediately. “Every time you see a sink, use it,” Glatt implores. This advice is backed by data: According to Madad, during the 2008 swine-flu pandemic, people who washed their hands frequently saw their risk of infection reduced by between 30 and 50 percent.

As for how to wash your hands, all the doctors we talked to shared the same wisdom — wash for 20 seconds and nothing less — with Madad adding, “Use warm water, sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice, and cover both sides of each hand completely.” In our guide to washing your hands, doctors told us that any standard soap is fine — and dermatologist Jennifer MacGregor actually advised to “stay clear of antibiotic cleansers, which can lead to bacterial resistance.” Mrs. Meyer’s, which we’ve called the best natural soap, has a formula full of natural ingredients that won’t strip your hands, and it even smells pleasant, too.

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How to Travel Amid the Coronavirus, According to Experts