By mid-August, Carmen Rising, a 27-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, hadn’t left the city limits in nearly six months, just like the millions of others who are doing their best to follow the pandemic rules of limiting travel as much as possible. It was around then, during an LA summer heatwave, that she and her live-in boyfriend hit a wall. While talking with another couple—friends of theirs who also live in LA—the four realized that none of them had plans for the following weekend (of course not).
“We decided to see if we could swing a getaway,” Rising told VICE. They had criteria: It needed to be somewhere within driving distance, and somewhere they could escape the heat. They started browsing Airbnbs in Idyllwild, “since it’s close and in the mountains.” They knew they had to go for it when, in the middle of their searching, a friend’s boss offered his newly renovated cabin in Idyllwild for them to stay in, for free, over a long weekend.
The group’s been back for over a week now and so far, no one’s shown symptoms of COVID-19. That’s thanks in part to luck, and also to the precautions the group took before their trip. Everyone quarantined (stayed home, eliminated trips to the store, etc.) in the week leading up to the vacation, and got negative tests back before leaving. While in Idyllwild, they kept exposure “to a minimum” by cooking all their meals at home. The only major difference in planning a trip during the pandemic versus other years, Rising said, ended up being more thought given to groceries and cooking.
“It was such a relief and big help in coping with my sanity,” Rising said. “I didn't realize how much I needed a reprieve from being inside my house. [Being able to trust] the other couple was a huge part of it that made it relaxing.”
Just like people have formed “pods” of friends and family they socialize with as the pandemic continues tearing around the country, those who feel adventurous—or just comfortable bending the rules—are going on what may as well be called “pod vacations”: Little (and occasionally secret) trips with a group of trusted people. With most of the typical reasons for traveling—sightseeing, eating at new restaurants, and general touristing—made irrelevant by the coronavirus, pod vacationers are mostly in search of a brief change of scenery with a group of friends.
While the CDC still recommends avoiding all nonessential travel, the loosening restrictions in cities and states with low case numbers have emboldened more movement at the tail end of mostly sedentary summer. The CDC doesn’t classify vacations (even those taken to feel a moment of reprieve and sanity) as “essential travel,” but as the pandemic stretches limitless before us, personal definitions shift, rental cars are booked, and cabins up in the mountains welcome pods of safe-ish vacationers looking for a little break.
Steve Mooney, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington, told VICE that if everyone in a vacation pod uses the available tools to make traveling safer—quarantine, getting a test, wearing a mask, etc.—the theoretical risk that someone in a group of eight or so people is sick is extremely low at this point in time. But the consequences that result from one person being sick are very high: One infected person in a vacation pod not only risks getting all the other travelers sick, but risks spurring outbreaks in the communities they head back to.
Ashley Connor, 29, took a pod trip to Shippenville, Pennsylvania, with her boyfriend and five of their friends in July. (While states near Pennsylvania have mandatory 14-day quarantines for certain out-of-state travelers, Pennsylvania merely “recommends” that travelers quarantine.) Unlike Rising, Connor’s trip involved wrangling a group of people who live around the country: Three people in Pittsburgh, three people in Jersey City, and one person in LA (who flew cross country, while everyone else drove). A couple from Texas was also supposed to join, but after getting an unclear COVID test result, canceled at the last minute. The rest of the group wasn’t tested, though one person had and recovered from coronavirus earlier this year.
They instead shored up their confidence by discussing their working and living arrangements. Everyone wore masks outside their homes before traveling, and limited time outside their homes in the weeks leading up to the trip. Like Rising, the most significantly altered part of their trip was extensive planning about meals; they created a spreadsheet of things to cook and games to bring to occupy their time in the cabin. Restaurants were closed after a spike in cases in Pennsylvania, so their options for going anywhere were limited, anyway.
“Apart from bringing masks and extra hand sanitizer, everything was normal,” Connor said. “No one from the trip has gotten COVID. I think we would all do it again. It was a nice reprieve from the chaos that has become everyday life.”
Both Rising and Connor said they chose the group of people they traveled with based on who they knew was behaving well throughout the pandemic, or, in other words, using the same level of caution as they were. They also minimized interaction outside of their pods by staying in rented (or borrowed) cabins instead of in hotels, where contact with other people is not within anyone’s control.
Pod vacationers have negotiated individual terms, all along these same lines of minimizing risk. Mariah Schaller, 22, recently arranged a trip with two close friends along Minnesota’s North Shore. The group only ate takeout and avoided even Airbnbs by camping. All three travelers tested negative after the trip.
Sarah Arbogast, 27, also recently camped with a group of friends that included her partner, plus the four same people she’d been in a lockdown pod in Denver with. She said that while they didn’t have access to reliable or affordable tests before the trip, they quarantined before leaving, and planned their driving stops to avoid small towns and Navajo communities, in order to avoid causing an outbreak in already resource-strapped communities. “We went out of our way to find a campsite that was entirely away from anyone,” Arbogast said.
While public health experts repeatedly emphasize that any amount of travel outside the home means some amount of risk, precautions like avoiding hotels, driving instead of flying, and minimizing public interaction help. Travel within the United States is down (a good thing), but Americans are still projected to take about 700 million car trips this summer. (Air travel is down by around 95 percent.) If traveling by car, doing things like minimizing stops, considering chain restaurants with overarching safety plans (versus local spots with less regulation), wearing masks everywhere, and washing hands frequently all help reduce the risk of getting sick, according to a recent New York Times advice column on road trips.
Staying in an Airbnb or vacation rental is safer than staying in a hotel, Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Business Insider. While hosts are left to follow rules about cleaning and sanitizing themselves, a standalone house is a better venue than a hotel with loads of people moving in and out, breathing all over the place, and potentially spewing virus-containing aerosols.
Even when traveling within a state that has travel restrictions, like New York, those absconding from the city to small towns upstate and in the Hamptons have been (rightfully) blamed for case surges and choking resources for permanent residents. In Texas, where cases remain high, small towns out west, like Marfa, Alpine, and the surrounding cities near Big Bend National Park, have been asking travelers to avoid inundating their already resource-strapped cities with more potential cases.
“I don’t think there’s a general sense of, don’t ever do this, or, it’s totally fine if you do this,” Mooney said. “It’s nuanced.” He added that a group traveling together should ideally be willing to negotiate to meet the needs of the person most at-risk of severe infection. If one person is only comfortable cooking and eating meals at home, and wants everyone to get a negative test before arriving, everyone should, ideally, be willing to do the same.
“If you’re going to go on vacation with people, you need to negotiate something that works for everyone,” Mooney said. “I think that would be the only viable choice, from an ethics perspective.”
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