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Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Fast-spreading omicron fuels uncertainty and chaos for travelers​

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• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is letting the cruise lines set their own course for safety measures. The agency’s Conditional Sailing Order, which has set pandemic-related rules for cruising since October 2020, will expire on Jan. 15. The cruise lines have until Jan. 21 to decide whether they’ll voluntarily follow the CDC’s suggested COVID-19 mitigation measures, which will be detailed in the coming days. You can check different ships’ COVID-19 status on the CDC's color-coded chart (those who opt out of the CDC program will be listed in the gray category). The CDC has also loosened some rules, allowing ships to reintroduce self-serve buffets, for instance.

The CDC says it is not safe to cruise, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC announced on Dec. 30 that it had raised the warning level for cruising to its level 4, or “do not travel,” category, due to a recent increase in COVID-19 cases aboard ships. Almost all ships have reported cases of COVID-19 onboard, with dozens under investigation by the CDC. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) is among those calling for another halt to cruising. Some cruise lines have canceled some upcoming sailings; Royal Caribbean canceled cruises on four different ships, some through March.   

• The CDC has moved Canada to its level 4, or “do not travel,” list, due to very high COVID-19 rates.

• More flights are canceled. The airlines’ labor shortages, exacerbated by surging numbers of crew members infected with COVID-19, have been grounding planes and canceling flights by the hundreds or even thousands every day for the past week. More than 2,600 U.S.-based flights were canceled on Sunday, Jan. 2, for example (only in part due to weather). This week United Airlines announced that 3,000 of its employees were out sick, and that more cancellations were inevitable.

• Fauci expresses support for vaccine requirement for air travel. White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, M.D., said on MSNBC on Dec. 27 that such a requirement would encourage more people to be vaccinated: “I think that’s something that seriously should be considered,” he noted.

• The CDC has shortened the isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19. The agency cut from 10 days to five days the time people need to self-isolate after testing positive, as long as they do not have any symptoms. (It also recommends that after five days of isolation, asymptomatic people wear a mask for another five days when they are around other people.) The new guidance is meant to both increase compliance among the public and lessen the burden of staff shortages on crucial businesses like airlines, whose executives actively pushed for the change. The Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson is among those protesting it (“We know we’re going to be sending infectious people back into the workspace, onto our planes,” she said on MSNBC).

• The CDC continues to advise against travel unless you are fully vaccinated. You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Travelers’ hopes for a “normal” 2022 have quickly been dashed, or at least dramatically lowered, as the year kicks off with the omicron variant of COVID-19 flying around the county faster than a 737. Questions about its longevity and severity — and what public health policies will be implemented to try to quash it — are making travel planning (or any kind of planning, really) more nerve-wracking than ever.

Here’s what we know now:

Domestic travel

There are few nationwide rules besides the federal mask mandate, which requires mask-wearing on public transportation — airplanes, buses and rail systems, as well as in airports and bus and train stations — through at least March 18. Fines for refusing to wear one range from $500 to $1,000 for first offenders and from $1,000 to $3,000 for second offenders. 

These fines have gone up, in part in response to the growing number of passengers who are violent or otherwise disruptive mid-flight. From the middle of January 2021 through Dec. 21, there were 5,779 reports of unruly passenger behavior, at times involving physical assault and often the result of disputes over the mask mandate, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Otherwise, different areas of the country have different COVID-19-related restrictions (though many have none). Los Angeles County, Hawaii and Las Vegas are among the jurisdictions that require everyone to wear masks in indoor public areas. Chicago continues its COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements for unvaccinated visitors from states that have passed the daily mark of 15 cases per 100,000 residents — now most of the country, as depicted on the city’s online map.  

New York City and San Francisco are among the cities now requiring that customers who want to eat indoors at a restaurant, work out in a gym or drink at a bar offer proof of vaccination.


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International travel

The CDC has moved more countries to its level 4, or “do not travel,” list, due to very high COVID-19 rates. Now all of Europe is at level 4, except Albania (level 3, for high COVID-19 rates) and Kosovo (level 1, for low rates). Note that for levels 1, 2 and 3, the CDC’s advice is the same: Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling to these destinations. You should be vaccinated if you choose to go to level 4 countries, too, of course, but the CDC warns that in these destinations “even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.”

Travelers should also check recommendations from the State Department, which may have stronger warnings for certain countries, often due to factors other than COVID-19.

Meanwhile, some countries are requiring visitors from the U.S. to show proof of vaccination. That includes Canada: U.S. visitors coming to Canada by land or air need show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, uploaded using the ArriveCAN app or web portal, to avoid a two-week quarantine upon arrival. 

In Europe, Spain and France are among those barring unvaccinated leisure travelers from the U.S. (In France, visitors must also provide a statement confirming that they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and that they have had no contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19). The rules in EU countries vary, so it’s important to do your research before settling on a destination, and check the CDC’s country-specific recommendations (as noted above). Complicating matters? The rules can change at any time.

Then there are rules for coming back into the U.S.: All travelers — regardless of vaccination status or nationality — arriving from international locations need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of their flight to the U.S. (Until recently, fully vaccinated U.S. travelers could offer tests taken within three days of their flight home.) 

The CDC also continues to advise all U.S. travelers to get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arriving back in the country and to watch for symptoms.

If you’re unvaccinated for COVID-19 and traveling internationally: You need to test for COVID-19 within one day of departure from the U.S. as well as follow the above post-travel testing requirements. 

If you’re not a U.S. citizen and 18 or older: You need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before you can board your flight to the U.S. (with very few exceptions). You also need to show a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure, as noted above. Airlines will collect phone numbers and other contact information in case contact tracing is necessary. 

Air travel

TSA screening: The TSA is asking travelers to use extra precautions during airport screening, including putting personal items such as wallets, phones and keys into carry-on bags instead of plastic bins, and staying 6 feet from others waiting in line. TSA officers are required to wear masks and gloves and to change gloves after a passenger pat-down, and travelers are required to wear masks as well. 

Passengers are allowed to bring liquid hand sanitizer in containers up to 12 ounces in carry-on bags; previously, liquids could be in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces. And they are also allowed to use a driver’s license that expired on or after March 1, 2020, as acceptable ID at checkpoints, for one year after the expiration date. (Some people have been unable to renew their licenses because of the pandemic.)

And note that you now have until May 3, 2023, to obtain a security-enhanced Real ID instead of a regular driver’s license in order to get through airport security. The deadline was recently delayed from Oct. 1, 2021.

Onboard: The CDC requires passengers and crew to wear masks while boarding and disembarking, as well as during the flight. None of the airlines are still blocking middle seats to enable social distancing. 

Their policies have evolved. While many airlines had stopped serving food and drinks during flights, some have begun to do so again, depending on the length of the flight. But Southwest and American have stopped serving alcohol onboard (though only in economy class, in American’s case), due to a high number of incidents involving unruly or violent passengers (as noted above).

All of the major U.S. airlines have equipped their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The CDC concurs, noting in its guidance for travel during the pandemic that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

It's not clear, however, whether the omicron variant may make onboard infection more likely.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 9, 2020. It’s been updated to reflect recent coronavirus developments.

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