NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Hurrying off to The Hamptons or Hilton Head? Carpooling to Cape Cod or Cape May?

With Memorial Day behind us and summer just down the road, a Rutgers expert recommends that you pack your hand sanitizer, mask and common sense along with your sunscreen and sandals when you go on vacation.

Whether you're headed to the Grand Canyon or the Grand Tetons this summer, COVID-19 could be there to greet you.

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“People are ready to take a vacation, but the virus is not going to take a vacation,” said Donald Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. “People need to be just as vigilant now as they were before and … realize that the way we get the virus is from other people.”

Schaffner also said that our interaction with more people that may have had or could be infected with COVID-19 further increases our risk of exposure, which makes it even more essential that people wash their hands properly, use hand sanitizer, wear masks and practice social distancing.

Additionally, keep in mind that healthy people can get sick or transmit the virus too.

“We’ve done a great job of getting the virus under control, but I’m afraid that as people are in this desire to go out and have a vacation and get back to normal, I have a significant concern that that’s just going to release another wave of cases from the virus.” Schaffner said.

The persistence of the coronavirus pandemic through the summer makes it difficult to predict summer travel, especially with social distancing regulations varying widely from state to state.

States such as Florida require travelers from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to sign in upon touching down and observing a 14-day self-quarantine.

“There are a number of websites that will allow you to find out the level of COVID-19 in various locations by state and by county … but of course, if there’s other people traveling, they could have come from anywhere,” he said.

Although rules are more relaxed in other states outside of New Jersey, the risk of getting the virus is equally high and precautions should be taken into consideration accordingly, he said. 

“You’re not just interacting with locals in those locations. You’re interacting with other travelers, and you don’t know where those travelers have come from.”

With all that in mind, experts still aren't sure how the health crisis will affect travel plans.

Schaffner recommends for travelers to continue to avoid large gatherings, especially if those people are not wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines.

He said friends who have been sheltering in place and have not been around other people are less of a risk than the general public, but the risk is still present and needs to be weighed carefully.

“We know that activities that elevate your heart rate [and] activities that elevate your breathing rate … may cause you to shed more virus,” Schaffner said. “If somebody runs passed you, that’s one thing, but it’s another thing to be playing volleyball or to be playing football or some physical activity where you’re in close contact with other people. That definitely puts you at risk, and so again, I just urge people to be as cautious as possible.”

Regarding COVID-19 this summer, being outside in the extreme heat makes it harder for the virus to survive and for people to be infected, he said.

With respect to hotels, it doesn’t hurt to ask how they are managing the COVID-19 risk, Schaffner said.

“I’m less worried about getting it from a hotel room that’s been empty for 24 hours than I am from standing next to someone in an elevator,” Schaffner said.

“People need to do their homework and ask questions to the hotel or other rental property that they’re visiting.”

Schaffner said that travelers should ask before renting a property – or equipment and supplies, for that matter - what is being done to disinfect the environments or items.

“If you have your own standards, you should bring some sort of disinfectant and realize that different compounds are better for different things,” Schaffner said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend disinfectants for the coronavirus, but using the most effective type is important to properly clean the desired surface.

Using a wipe with hand sanitizer for a surface is not the best choice when surface disinfectants could do a better job, Schaffner said.

People also need to be flexible and willing to adapt their scheduled vacation plans to any unpredictable changes occurring constantly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“As we start to open things up, I think we also have to be prepared to be able to shut things down again,” Schaffner said.

“There’s no complete safety, and so we’re just going to need to manage it day by day and … make good decisions that balance out everyone’s needs for rest and relaxation and having fun, but also balance public health in with that as well.”