You might want to hold off on planning non-essential travel this summer.

By Maggie O'Neill
May 22, 2020
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With summer right around the corner, many people are itching to travel again—and wondering when it will be safe to do so during COVID-19.

The bad news? There's no real yes-or-no answer to the question of whether it's safe to travel right now; as states open up, people will start venturing out more, and your decisions will have to be based on your own personal comfort levels. But before you and your family decide to book this year's vacation there are some pretty major considerations you have to account for—specifically, if it's safe to stay in a hotel right now.

How risky is it to stay in a hotel during COVID-19?

Checking into a hotel definitely increases your chances of coming into contact with the coronavirus. The CDC’s guidance for traveling during the pandemic says “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick,” and it warns that you should not travel if you’re sick, if someone with you is sick, or if you’ve been near someone with COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

When it comes to hotels in particular, there are a few red flags you need to be aware of. The first: Your chances of coming into contact with other people. Hotels are notoriously busy and filled with travelers from all over the place, so when you consider that COVID-19 is primarily spread through person-to-person contact with infected respiratory droplets, you'll see that hotels increase the risk the virus will be transmitted to you or someone in your party. Therefore, social distancing and mask-wearing are hugely important, should you have to stay in a hotel, says Donald Schaffner, PhD, a microbial risk assessment expert and professor at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The housekeeping in hotel rooms can also be an issue. Because you're often not the only person who has access to your hotel room while you're staying there, whenever someone else enters your room, there's a possibility they can bring germs in, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. That's also true if you stay in a room soon after another family stays in the same room. "Once you know which room you will be assigned, you can ask, 'When did the last guest check out of this room?'" Dr. Schaffner recommends, adding, "You could also ask for a room that has been vacant of guests for the longest time."

How are hotels keeping you safe during COVID-19?

While it's really not wise to travel and stay in a hotel right now for leisurely purposes, there are some situations when it's necessary to book a hotel room, like weather emergencies that force you and your family out of your home (and those are much more likely to happen during the summer months).

If it's absolutely necessary for you to book a hotel right now, there are some specific precautions hotels are taking to keep their guests safe. In order to reap these benefits, keep big hotel chains in mind when you’re shopping around for the safest place to stay, advises Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic. The reasoning? Some of those larger chains are being transparent about their cleaning routines. “Stay at a reputable place that discloses their cleaning tactics. These larger chains are conveying to the public what [they’re] doing,” Dr. Vyas says.

Marriott International, for example, shared a news release in April announcing "enhanced technology to counter virus spread." The hotel chain said they'd begin using electrostatic sprayers with hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize hotel surfaces and areas like guest rooms, lobbies, gyms, and other public areas. The news release also said the hotel would begin testing ultraviolet light technology to sanitize room keys.

Hilton hotels also announced that they'd be partnering with the Mayo Clinic and the company that owns Lysol to launch a program called Hilton CleanStay, the goal of which is to decrease the risk of transmission by doing things like removing unnecessary items, such as pens and paper, from rooms and providing disinfecting wipes in high-traffic spaces, such as near entrances, among other precautions.

Dr. Schaffner says that, while you might not get answers to every question you ask about how thoroughly your room has been cleaned, don't be shy about inquiring about the cleaning procedure wherever you're checking in. "Questions I might ask would be: Do you have different cleaning procedures if a guest reports flu-like or COVID-19 symptoms? How have you changed your standard cleaning procedures in response to the pandemic?" he says. Also, don't hesitate to ask how the hotel manager decided on an appropriate cleaning routine, to make sure they're using products that will actually protect you against COVID-19.

What extra precautions can you take to stay safe in a hotel room during COVID-19?

While, again, it's not recommended to stay in a hotel right now, there are extra steps you can take past the hotel's safety precautions to reduce your risk of getting COVID-19.

Despite the hotel's cleaning policy, you should still come prepared with your own cleaning products, says Tania Elliott, MD, clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. She recommends bringing your own cleaning supplies so that you can disinfect the room once you arrive. Key areas to wipe down include light switches, doorknobs, faucets the toilet handle, and the television remote. Also, it can’t hurt to wipe down any horizontal surfaces, says Dr. Vyas.

Of the upmost importance is making sure you're using the right products. Be sure that the wipes you're using on your hands are indeed for your skin and not for hard surfaces, or they might not be effective, Dr. Schaffner says. And vice versa: "Surface disinfecting wipes should not be used on hands, as they may be too harsh," he says, adding that you should be sure to check all cleaning product labels to make sure you're using them the way they were intended to be used. Dr. Elliott recommends bringing your own sheets and pillows for an added layer of protection: “Be sure to wash them before and after your stay.”

Make sure to avoid any clutter that you don’t have to make contact with, too, Dr. Elliott says. (Think: paper menus, stationary, etc.) “Avoid the minibar. It saves money and is more hygienic,” she adds. Another way to avoid touching things is to pack and use your own toiletries, rather than those provided by your hotel. Dr. Vyas suggests opting for a keyless entry rather than picking up a key at the front desk if that’s an option where you’re staying.

It’s also important to be mindful of what you touch outside of your hotel room, says Dr. Vyas. For example, if you leave the room and touch buttons on the elevator or the ice machine, make sure you wash your hands (with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds!) as soon as you return. And make sure you always remember to wear a mask when you leave your room—that will help both you and those around you stay safe. Another tip: If daily maid service is offered in your hotel, consider opting out of it to reduce the number of people entering your temporary living space. Similarly, consider taking the stairs if the elevator is packed, or waiting so you can ride it alone.

Additionally, you should be mindful of how you get your meals when you’re staying in a hotel. “Room service may be safer than going downstairs to a crowded restaurant,” Dr. Vyas says. Also, this probably goes without saying, but avoid buffet-style service if it’s offered to you. Dr. Vyas recommends choosing grab-and-go options instead of sit-down dining options if they’re available, which would decrease the amount of time you’re around other people.

Lastly, don’t go to the gym even if it’s open. “I would think those would be pretty unsafe right now,” says Dr. Vyas. There are many different surfaces that gym-goers touch (often with sweaty hands). For this reason, to decrease the risk of transmission, your best bet is to find other ways to get your workout in, such as going for a walk outside.

Overall, while there are ways to stay as safe as possible in a hotel if you absolutely have to, experts still agree it's not recommended to book a hotel room right now. "We're not condoning hotel [stays]," says Dr. Vyas. "That is definitely not what we need to do."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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