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Travel Is Back. But How Can We Do It Safely — & Ethically?

After over a year of masking, social distancing, and staying put, many vaccinated Americans are itching to go, well, anywhere. Travel and tourism experts know this better than anyone. “Within a two week time period, I went from almost zero business to working 110%,” Beth Whitman, the founder of WanderTours and author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, tells Refinery29 over the phone. The COVID-19 pandemic “pretty much decimated the travel industry,” she said, but with the vaccine rollout underway, travelers are starting to feel more optimistic about their summer plans.
This is already being demonstrated via newly released data from the Transportation Security Administration: Whereas last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic, under 500,000 people a day passed through airport security checkpoints in the U.S.; now, that number is approximately 1.5 million people — a statistic that’s been steadily creeping up since February. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s announcement that fully vaccinated people can safely travel at low risk to themselves, it only makes sense that more and more Americans will be traveling this summer. But, with COVID cases on the rise worldwide — and a grotesque, preventable disparity in vaccine distribution — what, exactly, does safe and ethical travel look like?
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First, though, we might want to be clear about what we talk about when we talk about travel. “We talk about traveling as a homogenous activity, but travel actually means many different things in different contexts,” Dr. Anu Taranath, a professor at the University of Washington and author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, tells Refinery29. “When we talk about people returning to travel in the next few months, we’ll have to nuance that term a little bit more.” A weekend road trip, for example, comes with very different risks and protocol than an international vacation. 
But epidemiologists agree that the process of traveling itself is pretty safe: Trains and subways are considered low-risk for spread, as long as everyone’s masked and the cars are well-ventilated. Planes are also quite safe, thanks to HEPA filters, which are 99.9% effective at filtering out particles and bacteria. And driving, of course, is very low-risk, especially if you’re traveling with members of your own household or friends who have all been vaccinated, says Seattle epidemiologist Dr. Jen Balkus, PhD. When it comes to where you stay, Lynda Paquette, a manager at the Alaska resort Angels Rest on Resurrection Bay, told USA Today that “standalone units like cabins and cottages with outside entrances” are the safest spots to crash, especially if you can check yourself in or out.
Whether you’re planning a weekend getaway or an overseas trip, research is also imperative. “Paying attention to what vaccinations [are] like, what the case rates are like, and the infrastructure for care — how is that being overburdened or not at this time — I think are all really important considerations as to whether now is the right time to travel,” Dr. Balkus says.
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Although all of these signs point to domestic travel as a safer (not to mention easier) option, Dr. Balkus adds that the likelihood of travelers contracting or spreading the virus is much more contingent on what they do than where they go. “If you’re going to Europe and you’re going on a vacation where you’re all outside and backpacking and not coming into contact with people, that’s arguably very low-risk for concern in terms of transmission,” she explains. “Whereas if you’re going to some place in the United States and the plan was to be indoors a lot and around a lot of people, that’s a different scenario.”
Whitman, who leads international and domestic tours, has shifted her focus to excursions within the U.S. — and activities that are COVID-safe. She recommends that travelers try to spend as much time outside as possible, no matter where they are. “Make your plans around anything that you can do outside,” she says. “I’m focusing on kayaking and biking and hiking and that sort of thing, just making plans to get outside as much as possible.” 
Making an itinerary ahead of time should help you prepare for potential risks, but Whitman also warns against prematurely booking an international flight. COVID cases are going down in the U.S., but we’re reaching new global peaks in countries like India and across whole regions, as in South America. As of now, many countries have closed borders, and although the European Union just announced that vaccinated tourists might be able to visit this summer, restrictions and requirements are still subject to change. “You might want to make your plans about 30-days out,” advises Whitman.
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Even though the CDC says fully vaccinated people can safely travel, there are pandemic-related risks that go beyond getting sick. As Whitman points out, a traveler could get stuck in an unfamiliar place if there’s a surge in case numbers and the entire country has to abruptly shut down. And, as per the CDC, there’s always a small risk that even a vaccinated person might acquire and carry the virus, and spread it within a new community. The Pfizer-BioNTech shot, for example, was found to be 100% effective against severe illness, but just 91.3% effective against the virus itself. 
“No vaccine is perfect,” says Dr. Balkus. “If you become infected and then travel home, we are seeing different variants of the virus in different settings, and that has the potential to introduce potential spread back in your place of origin.”
This is risky as it is, but it’s an even bigger concern given global medical inequity. Foreigners who catch and spread COVID aren’t only propagating the virus, but adding to the saturation of resources. “Healthcare is not a birthright for too many people, and often foreigners with a lot more power, privilege, and wealth get access to some of the best healthcare in another community,” Dr. Anu explains. “This is one more angle that gives me pause, and makes me think through my own individual decisions and how they impact others.”
If you do choose to travel, especially to a country with poor vaccine distribution, it’s important to follow local guidelines and etiquette. “You want to make [local residents] feel safe and comfortable and that it’s okay that you’re there. So have your mask, even if you feel comfortable because you’ve just been vaccinated,” says Whitman. “Just to protect them, or even just to make them feel better about it.”
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The choice to travel this summer is a personal one dependent on many factors including many that are impossible to predict. Understandably, there’s a lot of mixed messaging, and there isn’t a cut-and-dry answer about the best thing to do. Even CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged that travel is low-risk, but that non-essential trips should be avoided. “We know that right now we have a surging number of cases. I would advocate against general travel overall,” she said in April, according to Reuters. “We are not recommending travel at this time, especially for unvaccinated individuals.”
With so much conflicting messaging — and many people’s understandable desire to just get up and go somewhere, like, anywhere that isn’t the trip from their bed to their couch — where is a person to turn? Instagram? Maybe unsurprisingly, social media isn’t much of a help — it sometimes seems like everyone online is either judging and shaming people for safely traveling, or telling those who are more cautious, anxious, or high-risk that they need to loosen up. But this just places too much burden on the individual to protect the public-at-large, Dr. Anu emphasizes. “To put the full burden on you or I is to really obfuscate the point,” she says. “I want travelers to not have to think about whether they should go or not. I want our leaders and global structures to be able to create a world where we don’t have such pockets of inequity.”
Bottom line? Take all the necessary precautions before booking a trip. Get vaccinated. Look into your destination’s safety protocols. Do not be an exploitative traveler and be sensitive to the local residents of wherever you might wander. And, if you’re still feeling a lot of anxiety or guilt about traveling, Whitman has one last piece of advice: There’s nothing wrong with waiting a year. “I don’t think you’re going to enjoy the experience if you’re nervous about it,” she says. “[Someone who’s nervous] is probably better off and probably happier and more comfortable just hanging in there a little longer.”
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