Road trip checklist: How to prep for California car travel in the coronavirus pandemic

Road trip checklist: How to prep for California car travel in the coronavirus pandemic

It’s officially summer, and many Bay Area residents may be itching to get out of sheltering in place and hit the road. But being in a pandemic adds another layer of planning and preparation for a road trip.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of COVID response for the UCSF Emergency Department, traveled recently to the Navajo reservation in Gallup, N.M., to help with COVID-19 patient care and had to think about ways to stay safe in unfamiliar places.

“The most important thing … is not to expose yourself to a large number of other people, especially if you get within a few feet of them and not everyone is wearing face masks,” she said. “Disease and infection spreads in close proximity to other people. If you’re freely standing in a group of people for 20 to 30 minutes, that’s where you get sick if someone happens to have it. … Meals in the park, going car camping, backpacking, enjoying the outdoors and getting in tune with nature wherever you are reduces the risk.”

We spoke to health experts and the American Automobile Association to get advice on what to include in a road trip checklist for the COVID-19 era: items to pack, must-dos ahead of the trip, and safety steps to take while on the road.

Want a cheat sheet to download, print out and take with you on your travels? Go here to download the top highlights from all of the tips and takeaways we list below. And for more information on how to road-trip safely as California reopens, visit our FAQ here.

Packing essentials and tips (in addition to your regular list)

Hand sanitizer: Bring a smaller bottle while out and have a larger bottle at the entrance of your hotel room for convenient access when you return.

Face masks: Each person should have at least one and preferably a backup in case the first one gets contaminated.

Disinfecting wipes or spray: Find a brand approved by the EPA to kill the coronavirus by checking the registration number. Diluted bleach and 70% rubbing alcohol will work for certain surfaces.

Paper lunch bags: If your mask gets contaminated, Noble said this is a good way to keep it separated from clean items and allow it to decontaminate. Paper bags are porous and breathable, so they are better for decontamination than plastic bags.

Thermometer: Crucial to have on hand if someone begins to feel ill on the trip, or if you are visiting a high-risk individual.

Disposable latex gloves: They are not necessary for most situations, and are generally recommended for cleaning and caring for others who are sick. However, for one-time use in public restrooms or in other public spaces, they could prove useful. If you do wear latex gloves, don’t touch your face while wearing them, and dispose of them immediately after use.

• Hand soap.

• Extra doses of medication.

• Health insurance cards.

Choosing your destination and route

Open for visitors? Check the website of the cities and counties where you plan to spend time, to ensure the areas are welcoming visitors.

Coronavirus hot spot? Check the recent growth rate of coronavirus case counts in the areas where you will be spending time.

Visit the Chronicle’s Coronavirus Tracker to see how many cases are in each California county, and whether cases are on the rise there. If your travels take you beyond the Golden State, the New York Times’ latest coronavirus map shows the current hot spots across the country, states where new cases are rising and case counts.

Check reopenings in counties you are passing through or visiting. The Chronicle’s Reopening Tracker shows what types of businesses and services have reopened in Bay Area counties, and a map of the reopening stages for the rest of the state. Most of California is now in the Stage 3 reopening process.

Check COVID-19 travel restrictions in places you’re visiting with the AAA’s COVID-19 Travel Restriction map.

Steps to take when booking lodging

Do your research: Read up on California’s COVID-19 guidelines for hotels (go here for the info released by the state, and read our overview of hotel safety here).

If you are traveling beyond California, AAA says hotel reopening guidelines vary widely from state to state and county to county within each state, so contact hotels ahead of time to ensure they are open and ask about sanitizing measures and the coronavirus guidelines in place.

Don’t drop in: Make reservations for a hotel or rental home ahead of time.

Pay for lodging in advance, to avoid in-person transactions.

• See if online check-in is available to avoid waiting in line in the lobby.

Hotel vs. home rental? UCSF infectious disease expert George Rutherford said big high-rise hotels can be riskier with many shared spaces and high-use elevators. But also know that hotels generally have stepped up cleaning and safeguards to avoid virus spread. Whichever you choose, ask about safety precautions and COVID-19 guidelines before you book and again before you arrive.

COVID-19 testing: Consider getting a coronavirus test ahead of time for specific situations. Rutherford said if you plan to visit an eldery relative or someone who is immunocompromised, it is a good idea to get a test ahead of time. It may take several days to get the test result, so plan accordingly.

Safety precautions for the drive

Wear a mask when going out in public. It’s now mandatory in California to wear a mask outside of the home. Even if your route takes you to a place where masks aren’t required, health experts say wearing a mask will greatly reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

Take hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes with you when visiting public places.

Treat your car like an indoor space: Noble said to sanitize high-touch surfaces when you first get in the car, and use hand sanitizer before getting back inside.

• Be vigilant when making stops on the road.

• Avoid being around crowds of people.

Don’t wait in a long line for the restroom. Find another restroom or wait in your car until the line thins. Wash your hands thoroughly after using the restroom.

Getting gas: No need to wear gloves or wipe down gas pumps, but use hand sanitizer after you finish filling up the tank.

Avoid using cash. Use a credit card and clean it if a contactless reader isn’t available.

Clean your mask after use. If a washing machine isn’t accessible, wash it in the sink with warm or hot water and hand soap. Let it dry completely, preferably in sunlight if possible.

Eating on the go

• Packing meals ahead of time isn’t necessary, but be sure to wear a mask when going to the grocery store or picking up takeout, Rutherford said.

• Indoor vs. outdoor vs. takeout: Consider avoiding outdoor dining in cities that are coronavirus hot spots. Most health experts advise avoiding indoor dining entirely, even if it’s allowed in the area where you are traveling. Noble suggests ordering takeout and enjoying it picnic-style in a park.

• Use fast food drive-throughs for quick meals.

• Read up on the statewide guidelines for restaurants, which include thorough disinfecting protocols, social distancing requirements and other recommendations.

• If you do intend to eat at a restaurant, call ahead to inquire about social distancing protocols in place and to make a reservation, if possible. Some restaurants may allow you to place your order ahead of time as well, to reduce time spent in the dining room.

Safety check-ins at your destination

• Upon arrival, clean high-touch areas in your hotel room or rental home, such as door knobs, remote controls and thermostats. But both Rutherford and Noble said travelers shouldn’t worry too much about decontaminating every single surface: Hotel staff members should be ensuring rooms are well-sanitized before guests arrive.

Avoid indoor attractions. Some California counties are reopening museums, and more indoor attractions are open in other states. But Noble said they should be avoided for now. “Just because it’s allowed, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” she said.

Clean your cellphone. It’s easy to forget how often you use your phone, especially while out, so be sure to sanitize it regularly.

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