Lori Levinson was just a few weeks away from a trip to Vietnam and Japan, a vacation that had been months in the planning, when COVID-19, an illness caused by a new strain of coronavirus, went from a remote scare halfway across the world to a global public health emergency. Levinson, an attorney based in Housatonic, was scheduled to travel to southern Vietnam to see her son and continue on for a family trip to Japan. But with infection rates rising by the day, she made the call to cancel.
It’s a difficult decision, and one more people are weighing as the coronavirus has caused illness in nearly 92,000 people and claimed the lives of about 3,000, most in mainland China. The United States is still at low risk, with just over 100 confirmed cases, most of those in travelers who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was detained in Yokohama, Japan (many are still in hospital or military-base quarantine). There have also been six deaths, all in Washington State. In our region, four cases have been reported: one each in New York and New Hampshire, and two apiece in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Globally, however, COVID-19 is approaching pandemic levels, according to Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. That doesn’t mean we should rush to the phones to cancel vacations planned for the summer, or trips to low-risk areas. But, says Dr. Everett Lamm, Chief Medical Officer of Community Health Programs in Great Barrington, travel restrictions—whether self- or government-imposed—do help contain the spread. “It’s an ounce of prevention in terms of people’s travel being restricted, because we’re not quite sure how many people are afflicted right now.”
Although there’s been an onslaught of media attention on coronavirus over the past couple of weeks, the seasonal flu, as Lamm points out, has actually been more deadly than this coronavirus. Between October 2019 and now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 310,000–560,000 hospitalizations for the flu, and 18,000–46,000 flu deaths—rates much higher than those logged over most of the past decade. But because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, seems to spread more easily than the seasonal flu, there’s cause for caution.
By now, most of us know that SARS-CoV-2 spreads via droplets, such as from coughing and sneezing, making travel in confined spaces for prolonged periods—as on that Diamond Princess cruise ship—among the least desirable situations. (Lots of medical professionals have already said it, but we’ll repeat it here: surgical masks won’t prevent you from catching the virus. The cheap, disposable paper kind are generally not made to filter pathogens, and stockpiling them creates a supply issue for medical facilities that actually need them.)
“Coronavirus Risk: Crisis Management in the Travel Industry”
While a person who isn’t symptomatic can hardly be faulted for traveling while infected, there are increasing numbers of people who choose to travel while symptomatic, especially on planes — potentially mistaking illnesses such as COVID-19 for the common cold. (Raise your hand if you’ve been the lucky middle-seater on a plane with a pair of hacking, sniffling neighbors.) Why the increase?
It’s primarily thanks to airline change fees, which can be upwards of $200 for a single reservation. Couple that with travelers who fear not being compensated for sick time by their employers, or those who just want to get home to relieve the baby- or pet-sitter, and the financial burden multiplies.
If sustainable travel is an oxymoron, is “healthy travel” impossible during a global health emergency? And who, ultimately, is responsible: the traveler or the airline, hotel, or tourism company?
The answer is complicated, and it’s inextricably tied to our increasingly global economy. Fiona Lally, President of Rasenna Consulting Inc. in New Lebanon, is a specialist in travel risk management. She explains, “We’re looking at massive losses around the world right now for the travel industry. About one in eight Americans have stopped long-distance travel because they don’t know what will happen in spring and summer.”
Many of those destinations, especially those that are dependent on tourism, are feeling the pinch. The answer, says Lally, isn’t simply staying home. “One of the best things we can do for the global economy is to keep going, to whatever extent we feel is safe,” she says. “Then take those commonsense approaches—handwashing, avoiding contact with those who are ill, not borrowing someone else’s cell phone, taking care to open doorknobs with a paper towel.”
For Levinson, the decision to cancel her travel plans was based not on catching COVID-19. “The primary motivating factor was my fear that while I’m away, there may be some sort of border shut-down, and I might be detained there or even when I come back to the U.S.,” she says.
She has since tried to make contact with Japan Airlines and Delta Airlines, the two carriers of her flights. “With Japan Airlines, you can’t get through to them because everyone is calling. I got Delta’s recorded line and left a message. They said they’d call back this morning,” she says.
Levinson believes airlines should allow for penalty-free changes or cancellations for such events—and some, like American, Jetblue, and Alaska, as well as train operator Amtrak—are beginning to offer change waivers. But when asked about her chances of reimbursement or a change waiver, Levinson says, “I’m not overly optimistic.”
Tammy Levent, president and CEO of Elite Travel in Palm Harbor, Florida, has a different perspective. She says, “Your responsibility as a traveler is to know who you’re booking with. Know what they cover and what they don’t, and never book nonrefundable trips. If you book online, you’ll have no one to fall back on to ask questions.”
She recommends using a travel agent, who can help you not only create your itinerary, but also purchase travel insurance. There are several levels of coverage, but Levent’s top choice is “cancel for any reason” insurance, which, as the name implies, allows you to nix your trip for anything from a hangnail to a flat tire and recoup up to 100 percent of the cost.
The sticky part: it can cost as much as $120 per person. Many travelers just don’t have the extra cash.
The next-best option, Levent says, is to wait. “Watch what the CDC is saying,” she says. “If they say they’re going to shut down the border of a country, then the airlines and hoteliers have to comply with what’s dictated to them. Right now, the CDC has an alert out until March 15. So if you’re scheduled to travel on March 16, you can’t just cancel without penalty. But we’re seeing, for example, Delta give certain waivers for changes that fall within the advisory period. Wait until those alerts have been issued, and if your trip falls within them, you’re more likely to be able to move your trip date without having to pay extra.”