Longtime radio host Eric Tyler said he and his wife, Randi, have each visited more than 80 countries and were “always on airplanes.” Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Tyler was laid off from WBBM-FM 96.3 as part of cuts made by Entercom Communications.
Anxious to satisfy their travel itch, the two rented a Mazda CX-5 — a “Mazdarati” they called it — from an Avis location near their South Loop home for more than a month and went west.
“We have a 6-month-old puppy,” Tyler, 41, told the Tribune by phone of his Aussiedoodle named Esther. “I think we came up with this after a few drinks, but we decided that we are going to bring our 6-month-old puppy and get a picture with her in all of the lower 48 states by the time she turns 1, so we’ve got until the end of the year to do it.”
The couple went so far as to buy a 2015 Ram ProMaster van — they named it Velma — outfitted with a bed, toilet, portable shower, solar panels, cabinets and outlets with USB capabilities for $59,000 to continue their journey. Eric said he often drives while Randi works on her laptop in the front seat. The couple is on what VRBO calls a “flexcation” — a trip made possible because of flexible work or school schedules.
The vacation rental site found families are increasingly booking trips in late August, September and October thanks to e-learning and work-from-home opportunities. Whether you’re taking a Labor Day trip or a longer “flexcation,” here are some tips for how to stay safe on the road during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AAA reported an uptick in last-minute summer trips, with travelers making plans only 48 hours to seven days before departure because of changing coronavirus restrictions, but travel specialists say preparation is key to minimizing the number of stops and limiting potential exposure to the virus. AAA recommends ensuring your vehicle is ready for the trip; bringing necessary travel documentation, including health insurance cards; and visiting TripTik.AAA.com to plan your route and access the automobile club’s interactive COVID-19 restrictions map.
Dr. June McKoy, a Northwestern University associate professor of medicine, medical education and preventive medicine, suggests creating a packing list that includes prescription and over-the-counter medications, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, rolls of paper towels, water and snacks. Also remember to bring gloves and masks.
McKoy advises wearing masks in the car if travelers are from different generations and especially if older adults are making the trip because they are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. McKoy recommends wearing gloves to pump gas and paying with a credit or debit card, instead of cash, at gas stations to limit contact with others. If you need to use the gas station bathroom or a public restroom, wear a mask and bring disinfecting wipes and a few sheets of paper towel, she said.
Use a wet wipe to clean the handle of the restroom door and use paper towel to push the toilet lever if it doesn’t automatically flush, McKoy said. Use another paper towel to turn the faucet on to wash your hands and another to turn the restroom door handle to exit. Sanitize hands again when returning to the car.
“You’re going to touch a lot of surfaces, and what we don’t want people to do is to touch the surfaces and not wipe them off before they touch them because that’s how transmission goes,” McKoy said.
When stopping for food, McKoy said it’s better to dine on a patio than inside a restaurant “because inside you’re subject to the ventilation system of the restaurant, and you don’t know how good that is.” She recommends having one person order for everyone or using a drive-thru “because your car is like a huge plexiglass protector for you.”
If your trip requires a hotel stay, call first to make sure it is open and see if it is possible to use your smartphone as the room key to avoid in-person check-in. Travelers should use gloves as they wipe down room door handles and surfaces they think they might come in contact with, McKoy said.
“Yes, they’re sanitizing, but I’m really admonishing travelers to also not depend on the hotel,” she said.
McKoy is vigilant about the TV remote. She said she uses a wet wipe to clean the remote, lets it air dry and then drops it into a zipper storage bag, where it remains for her entire hotel stay. She said she puts the bag with the remote in her purse when she leaves the hotel for the day “to make sure no one else touches it.” She also tells hotel staff not to clean her room until she checks out.
A recent analysis of eight major hotel brands by the personal finance site NerdWallet found Hyatt is the best at health and social distancing, based on six criteria that include cleaning procedures; staff and guest mask policies; and employee health checks. Best Western, IHG and Marriott were runners-up. AAA, meanwhile, gives out “Best of Housekeeping” badges to accommodations with no member complaints for the previous 12 months and excellent scores for two consecutive inspections.
Bill Valenta, of Andersonville, opted in April to drive to the Cleveland area and back in the same day instead of staying overnight.
“Normally I might go visit my daughter and get a hotel and stay for a couple of days, but that was not going to happen this time, just due to safety and everything’s closed. You’re not going miniature golfing or to the movies or to restaurants,” said Valenta, 54. He said he curtailed most of his vacation plans this year. “We don’t want to have to come back and quarantine. We have work and other things we have to take care of, so it’s been travel safely, get in, get out or forget about it.”
Chicago requires residents who visit areas experiencing a surge in new COVID-19 cases to quarantine for 14 days. McKoy said it’s not necessary to get tested for the virus if you have been to one of these hot spots, but do so if you have symptoms or know you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive.
“If you do those things (mentioned above) and be prepared, I think you can go into a city that has (a rising number of) cases, and you can come out OK. Just assume in those cities that everybody that you see has it, has been exposed to it,” McKoy said.
Tyler has found it’s important to adapt to changing circumstances. He said he and Randi went to west Texas to visit Big Bend National Park, but it temporarily closed because of the coronavirus. They went to nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park instead and “had a blast.”
“If you’re flexible, it can lead to some pretty cool adventures,” Tyler said.
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