Is It Safe to Travel Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak? Here's What Experts and Agencies Say

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread in the U.S. and abroad, many would-be vacationers are raising concerns

UPDATE: On March 19, the U.S. State Department raised their global travel advisory to a Level 4 — the most severe — in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). It suggests a stop to all international travel, and urges Americans traveling abroad to return home immediately.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread in the U.S. and beyond, many would-be vacationers are concerned about whether its safe to travel to a variety of destinations — or at all.

In recent weeks, a number of countries have been deemed unsafe to visit by the State Department and Centers for Disease Control, and the former announced on Sunday that U.S. citizens should not board cruise ships, regardless of their destination, as they’re particularly susceptible to outbreaks of illness. A handful of destinations that have been hit hard by the epidemic have recently been locked down completely.

As a result, the demand for flights, hotels and other travel-related services domestically and internationally has dropped dramatically, which in turn is driving down their cost. Reduced fares, room rates, and in some cases, the promise of incentivizing perks, are causing some to consider whether a cheap trip is worth the risks associated with the global illness.

Italy's Tourism Sector Predicted To Lose Billions From COVID-19 Impact
Laurel Chor/Getty

“Safety is a personal decision that is different for every traveler,” Erika Richter, Senior Director of Communications at the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) tells PEOPLE, noting that the situation is continually evolving, and every traveler has a different level of risk tolerance. Currently, the ASTA advises monitoring sources like the CDC and State Department, and checking with your doctor before deciding whether or not travel is safe for you.

Louvre museum in Paris
Louvre museum in Paris
Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP/Shutterstock

“Some travel advisors are telling us that their clients are canceling or postponing trips to Italy and Asia, but that travel has not come to a screeching halt,” Richter said on Monday. On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte instructed citizens to stay home and avoid non-essential travel, the BBC reported. The country has seen 463 deaths and 9,172 cases as of March 10 — the second most fatalities of any country in the world, behind China, which has confirmed 3,136 deaths and 80,757 cases.

Currently, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Italy, China, South Korea and Iran, noting that entry of foreign nationals from China and Iran into the U.S. is currently suspended.

The CDC also recommends that older adults, or those with chronic medical conditions, consider postponing travel to Japan, and state that there is a risk of limited community transmission in Hong Kong.

According to Richter, those who do choose to travel are choosing closer-to-home destinations like Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, all of which have reported cases of COVID-19 but do not currently have travel advisories in place by the CDC or State Department.

“Some travel advisors tell us that if a destination is not on the State Department’s advisory list, their clients are going,” Richter says, noting that South America and Greece are also becoming popular destinations for that reason.

As previously noted, the State Department recently issued a formal warning against traveling by cruise ship, saying in a statement that the “cruise ship environment” can foster an “increased risk of infection.” The CDC also issued a similar warning, citing the “unusual nature of the novel coronavirus,” which “appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.” However, several major cruise lines confirmed to PEOPLE on Monday that their sailings will continue as scheduled.

Beyond cruise ships, many health officials are encouraging people with underlying health issues to practice “social distancing,” described by Harvard Health as “maintaining enough distance between yourself and another person to reduce the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” Studies have shown a virus can spread as far as 6 to 8 feet from coughing or sneezing.

Many events that would see a large number of visitors descending on a destination have been suspended across the U.S. to avoid having many people gathering very close together, from Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

Coronavirus Outbreak in San Francisco
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As of March 10, 106 countries have confirmed cases of COVID-19, spanning across Africa, the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. A list of all the countries currently impacted can be found on the CDC website.

The World Health Organization (WHO) shares a daily situation report, which lists each country with confirmed cases, as well as how many confirmed cases they have, how many new cases have emerged, how many deaths have resulted, their transmission classification (imported cases versus local transmission) and the number of days since their last reported case.

coronavirus maps

Both the CDC and State Department have color-coded maps of the world for travelers looking to assess their travel risks. The CDC map shows each country’s risk for transmission of COVID-19 specifically, while the State Department map shows travel risks more generally (including risks related to terrorism, crime, etc). Both these organizations suggest looking at these maps before making decisions related to travel.

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On Tuesday, the U.S. Travel Association shared a statement from a coalition of 150 organizations including airlines, tourism boards and hotel associations stating that the travel and hospitality industry have been working with government and health officials to ensure that it is safe to travel within the U.S.

“Health and government officials have continually assured the public that healthy Americans can ‘confidently travel in this country,’” the statement says. “While it’s critically important to remain vigilant and take useful precautions in times like these, it’s equally important to make calm, rational, and fact-based decisions.”

For those choosing not to travel in the near future, Richter says it’s still possible to take advantage of low travel prices.

“When you work with a travel advisor, you can plan now and travel later,” Richter says. “There are so many companies that are offering incentives and relaxing their cancelation and deposit guidelines to be flexible for travelers.”

No matter what you choose to do, the situation is constantly changing, so staying informed is of the utmost importance. Richter suggests checking the CDC, State Department and WHO recommendations regularly, and signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) for free travel alerts from the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Whether traveling or staying home, the best prevention methods are basic forms of hygiene — careful hand washing, avoiding touching the face, moving away from people who are coughing or sneezing, and staying home at signs of illness.

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