Commuters make their way through New York City's Grand Central Terminal.
Commuters make their way through New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

The federal government has asked people all across the country to stay close to home, as a way to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Guidelines from the White House [PDF] ask most civilians to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more, as well as most trips to stores or restaurants (some of which are open only for takeout or delivery). Many workplaces and schools have transitioned to remote work or learning.

But some people still need to commute to their workplace—a hospital, for example—or go grocery shopping. How worried do you need to be about venturing forth? And what steps can you take to protect yourself when you do?

We talked with experts about who should be most worried about going out into the community, as well as which precautions are worth taking—and which aren’t.

The Importance of Social Distancing

Public health experts are encouraging taking social distancing measures.

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That means avoiding sick people, steering clear of crowds, and staying home as much as possible, especially if the virus is circulating in your community.

The logic behind social distancing rests on two key scientific facts about the virus. First, scientists say that its spread requires close contact—being directly coughed on or sneezed at by someone with the disease, or by being within 6 feet of an infected person for about 10 to 15 minutes or longer. Second, the virus can survive on surfaces for hours or even days

That means the key to avoiding the disease is keeping a safe distance from sick people and, as much as possible, trying to not touch surfaces that may have the virus on them. It also means washing your hands carefully, so you don’t transfer virus to your mouth, nose, or eyes, where it can enter your system.

And it means staying home when you yourself are sick, even mildly—COVID-19 can cause mild symptoms that may be mistaken for other illnesses. Taking social distancing measures is especially important for protecting those most vulnerable to severe disease from COVID-19, including older adults and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and conditions that suppress the immune system. 

Public Transportation

For those who have to commute each day still: If you see someone cough or sneeze near you on the bus or train, and you’re more than 6 feet away from them, your risk is probably low, says David Freedman, M.D., a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

If an obviously sick person is right next to you, it’s a bit trickier. “I’m concerned about this sort of profiling of people who are coughing and sneezing,” says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Simmons University in Boston and an expert in home and community hygiene. “On the other hand, we need to be smart.” 

Here’s how. 

Change your commute time. If you work in an industry where you still need to commute for work or you live in an area where local travel is not restricted, try to adjust your work hours, if possible, to less busy times. 

Clean your hands as soon as possible after your trip. Surfaces in a public transit setting most likely to harbor the virus are those that are most commonly touched, Scott says, such as the bars you hold on to for balance on the train or bus. 

While it might in theory make sense to wipe down those surfaces with a disinfectant before you grab hold of them, it’s not always practical. “It’s impossible to take action on every surface that you come in contact with,” Scott says. 

But you should wash your hands as soon as possible after leaving your bus or train. A thorough rub with a hand sanitizer makes sense. Even more important is thorough hand-washing—20 seconds with soap and water. And avoid touching your face with your hands, to keep any germs you might have picked up from getting into your system.

Consider other forms of transportation. Another option is, when possible, to walk or bike to your destination instead of taking public transport. 

And if you opt for a rental bike or e-scooter, follow the same precautions as with public transportation, carefully washing your hands after each use. “The virus is not going to jump off the handlebars and jump into your mouth,” Freedman says. Instead, cleaning your hands after you touch the handlebars or any other potentially contaminated surface is probably the best strategy, he says.

Airplanes

Currently, the State Department is recommending that U.S. citizens avoid all international travel. But what about flying within the U.S.

Consider rescheduling. Canceling your trip is especially wise if you’re at high risk for serious disease from COVID-19. That includes people 60 and up, and especially people 80 or older. It also includes people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. People in those risk categories should try to avoid non-essential air travel, particularly long plane rides, Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a March 9 press briefing.

Even if you’re not in a high-risk group, it might be a good idea to reschedule. The White House advises canceling all “discretionary travel,” right now, and the CDC notes that being in crowded places, such as airports, can increase your chance of catching COVID-19—putting you and anyone you come into contact with at risk.

Keep your distance. If you do need to travel by plane, it’s worth noting that the risk of the disease being spread through its airflow system is relatively low. That’s because the air is continually filtered through a HEPA filter, which can trap viruses, Freedman says. 

Instead, your risk on the plane, as on a bus or train, is being near someone who is infected. On a plane, that means sitting within two seats—to the side, front, or back—of someone who is ill, research suggests. So if you’re seated that close to someone who is obviously sick, ask whether you can change your seat, Freedman says. And with travel down these days, that may be easier than usual. 

Practice good hygiene. That includes bringing hand sanitizer with you to clean your hands before eating and after you touch surfaces, such as the door handle on the outside of the restroom or the headrests as you walk down the aisle, says Scott at Simmons University. Also consider bringing disinfecting wipes for your food tray and other high-touch surfaces, she says.

Cruise Ships

Disease can spread quickly inside the close quarters of a cruise ship, as has occurred in several cases already. For that reason, the CDC now warns against any travel on a cruise ship, particularly for those at higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19.