Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association
Know where you “go” when you’re going south for the winter
How to stay safe – and sanitized – on the road this fall
by Alexis Campbell
In March 2020, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. During the rush to return to Canada (and hopefully, safety), few snowbirds gave any thought to where they would be next winter. Now, after months of social isolation, many are no doubt wondering whether it will be possible (or advisable) to make their usual trip south. Those willing to brave the risks may be wondering how to protect themselves from COVID-19 during their journey.
Typically, about half of snowbirds travelling to the U.S. fly to their destination, while the other half drive. Assuming that the U.S.-Canada border is consistently open by October or November, travellers will need to decide between these two alternatives. For many, safety will be the primary (and possibly overriding) concern.
Flying versus driving
Both air and ground travel involve some risk of coronavirus infection. Airline passengers will spend hours in a small, enclosed space, surrounded by other people who are closer than the minimum six-foot distance recommended by health authorities. They will also need to share washroom facilities. Road travellers may feel safe when insulated in a vehicle but, when emerging to refuel, make purchases and especially to use public restrooms, they too run the risk of becoming infected.
At the moment, it is not possible to quantify the risk of developing COVID-19 for either air or ground travel, let alone compare the two. However, snowbirds who take the “groundhog” approach have definite advantages: less financial risk, greater flexibility and more control. A sudden border closure, or being unable to board a flight means that air travellers may have to deal with additional booking fees associated with rescheduling, difficulty in obtaining cash refunds and the possibility that trip cancellation and interruption insurance may not reimburse stoppages or delays related to COVID-19.
Drivers and their passengers do not share these concerns because they control both the means of transportation and their travel schedule. And, because they aren’t limited to carry-on luggage, road travellers have more leeway to bring with them the quantities of hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and any other cleaning and sanitation supplies which they feel are necessary.
Public washrooms and COVID-19 transmission
Coronaviruses are most often transmitted from someone who is infected to an uninfected person nearby. This is why social distancing (remaining at least six feet away from anyone who is not part of your household) is so important, and the reason that the risk is increased in crowded settings (such as in a shopping mall or on public transit) or in large gatherings (movie theatres, sporting events). Touching something previously touched by an infected person and then touching your mouth, nose or hands is another way in which the virus is transmitted; this is one reason that frequent handwashing is recommended as a way of reducing transmission.
Some features of public washrooms, including those at interstate rest areas, act to increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Public restrooms are enclosed spaces, often crowded, where people are frequently less than six feet apart. Other factors contributing to this increased risk are inadequate hand hygiene (see “Hand hygiene fail”) and poor sanitation design. Droplets of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 remain in the air for up to three hours after a toilet is flushed. A lid can help contain these droplets. Unfortunately, lidless toilets are a feature of many public washrooms.
Hand hygiene failCoronaviruses are easy to kill. Washing hands with soap and water or rubbing hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer are both effective at eradicating the virus and reducing the risk of transmission. Unfortunately, many people skip this simple step. One 2009 study found that only 31% of men and 65% of women washed their hands after using a public washroom!
Sanitation standards at interstate rest areas
Just how clean (and sanitary) are washrooms at interstate rest areas? The answer depends on the state in which a particular rest area is located. Although the interstate highway system was built with federal funds, the care and maintenance of highways (including rest areas) are the responsibility of the state’s Department of Transportation (DoT). To learn about sanitation standards, you will need to consult the DoT of the state through which you will travel.
To make this task a little bit easier, CSANews did some research. Selecting four popular snowbird destinations and four Canadian cities as starting points, we mapped out a route for each. We then identified the major interstate highways on each route and the states through which travellers will pass on their journey (see table). Next, we looked for (and found) a website that lists website and contact information for the DoTs in all 50 states. Finally, we did a test run to see how well our strategy worked.
Finding a DoT is as easy as ABCTo find website and contact information for a state’s department of transport, visit www.interstaterestareas.com/department-of-transportation-information/ or go to www.interstaterestareas.com and click on “View a list of transportation offices” link under “Lost Items.”
We chose our West Coast route for this test. The I-5 highway that runs from the Canadian border near Vancouver to San Diego runs through three states: Washington, Oregon and California. We searched the DoT website for each state looking for information related to rest area washroom facilities and what cleaning and sanitation protocols or standards were in place. If necessary, we also telephoned the and spoke with a representative. Results of our test are given below.
The website of Washington’s DoT tells us that the state has 47 major rest areas, all of which remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic except for normal seasonal closures. Regular standards require washrooms at rest areas to be cleaned and sanitized daily; in response to the pandemic, the state has mandated that washroom touch points be disinfected and supplies restocked more frequently.
The DoT website confirms that all rest areas on the Oregon stretch of the I-5 remain open during the pandemic, and cleaning of most rest areas has been doubled in frequency.
We were unable to find any information about sanitation standards for rest area washrooms on California’s DoT website, so we contacted the DoT directly. We reached Public Information Officer Andrew Goetz of Caltrans District One in the northwest part of the state. After consulting with a colleague, Mr. Goetz told us that no rest areas were closed due to COVID-19, as the facilities are considered essential for travellers, especially the truckers who move essential goods across the country. (Some rest areas are closed for routine maintenance.) As for the washrooms at rest areas, he confirmed that the state was doing additional cleaning and disinfecting in response to the pandemic, but was unable to provide more detail.
He did offer a helpful suggestion to improve the experience for snowbirds travelling through California. “Our Quickmap site (http://quickmap.dot.ca.gov/) is a great resource for folks travelling by car,” he said. “There’s a map of the entire state, and you can view whether rest areas are open or closed, among other things.” We took a look and found that the site also shows road conditions, lane and road closures, message signs and road cameras. The traffic information is refreshed every few minutes. (There’s even an app for both iPhone and Android.)
Rest areas are just a click awayTo see a cross-country map of rest areas in the continental U.S., visit www.interstaterestareas.com and click on “Map of rest areas.”
Safe and sanitized: a guide to minimizing COVID-19 risk on the road
Knowing the standards of hygiene for below, we have listed 10 “rules of the road” to help you reduce your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 when answering nature’s call.
Be prepared. Ensure that you have the cleaning and sanitation supplies which you need for your entire trip, especially hard-to-find products such as hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. You will also need a supply of disposable, non-medical masks.
Wear a non-medical mask. Health authorities recommend wearing this type of mask when you are going to be spending time in places (such as public washrooms) where you will be less than six feet away from other people.
Be patient. If a facility is crowded, wait a little while before going in. Fewer people mean less risk.
Keep your distance. When inside a washroom, stay as far away from other people as you can. You might choose a stall that isn’t next to one that is occupied. Similarly, you might wash your hands at a sink away from those being used by other people.
Make masks a deal-breaker. If you notice that people in a washroom aren’t wearing masks, leave. The Centers for Disease Control, Health Canada and the World Health Organization all recommend wearing non-medical masks where social distancing isn’t possible, to help lower the risk of infection. In a public washroom, social distancing can be difficult or impossible.
Get in and out as quickly as you can. Less time spent in the washroom may help to lower infection risk.
Touch as little as possible. The fewer surfaces you touch, the less likely you are to pick up virus particles on your hands.
Wash up. Scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or rub your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer containing at least 60% ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.
Skip the hand dryer. Dryers may help to spread germs. Instead, dry your hands with a paper towel (and use it to turn the faucet off afterwards).
Don’t touch that door handle! Grab another paper towel on your way out and use it to open the door so that you don’t undo all of the work you did getting your hands clean.
Why not hand dryers?At first glance, it may seem that hand dryers are a more convenient and environmentally sound choice than paper towels: they never run out of hot air, and there are no paper towels to go into the garbage. Unfortunately, it looks as though hand dryers aren’t such a good idea after all. The original type of dryer requires people to push a button to activate the hot air, which is one more potentially contaminated surface to touch. Research suggests that hand dryers may blow germs from elsewhere in the washroom directly onto your hands. In addition, people may need to line up to use the dryers, which means that they are spending more time close together in a small, enclosed space.Touch lessWhile you can’t avoid touching everything in a public washroom, there are ways to reduce the number of surfaces that come into contact with your hands.Put your best foot forward: instead of grabbing the handle of a stall door, you can use your foot or knee to swing it open.Hip, hip, hurray: once inside the stall, use your hip (instead of your hand) to bump the door shut.Hello, elbow: use your elbow to slide the latch into place.Go undercover: wearing gloves is a surefire way to minimize contact with surfaces. Use disposable gloves, though, because you’ll need to toss them in the trash and wash your hands.Paper it over: paper towels can be a useful way to cover your hands. They’re best used to protect your hands from bacteria on the washroom door handle as you exit.And remember, the one thing you should never touch in a public washroom is your face. If your hands are contaminated with coronavirus particles and you touch your mouth, eyes or nose, you could become infected with COVID-19.The worst offenderIf you’ve ever wondered what’s the germiest object in a public washroom, wonder no more. Scientists have studied this question and have learned that the surface with the greatest number of bacteria is…the sink! There were about 50 times more bacteria on the sink than the second-most contaminated object. This makes sense, because people touch the sink after they have touched many other germ-ridden objects and before they wash their hands.
More ways to reduce your risk
If you’re prepared to put in some extra effort, there are more ways in which you may be able to reduce the chances that you’ll be infected with coronavirus. Here are a few ideas to consider:
When using urinals, give yourself lots of room – or use a stall. As a partially enclosed space, the stall provides a measure of protection that urinals don’t.
Wait until the washroom is empty. The ultimate in social distancing, this avoids one of the most common means of spreading the virus – by being close to an infected person.
Use a disposable cover on the toilet seat. This puts a barrier between you and a frequently touched surface and helps to limit the number of surfaces that come into contact with your hands.
“Flush and run.” One expert recommends this as a strategy if you’re in a washroom without lids on the toilets, as it puts some distance between you and the spray that comes out of the toilet when you flush.
Sanitize your hands after leaving the washroom. It’s an opportunity to get germs off of your hands once you’re away from the washroom. An extra 20 seconds of sanitizing could be your ounce of prevention.
Bypass public washrooms entirely. You don’t need an RV to skip public washrooms, although this won’t be for everyone (see “Worst-case scenarios”).
What happens if you need to “go” …and there’s nowhere nearby to go? Or if the available washroom looks unsanitary or too crowded for comfort during a pandemic? You can resort to the traditional solutions (trees, bushes, hiding behind your car on the side of the highway), but there are more modern (and slightly less embarrassing) options available. If you have room in your vehicle, you can purchase what is known as a “travel toilet” or “camping toilet.” The simplest models are essentially a bucket with a toilet seat that fits on top and liner bags to collect the waste. There are also more sophisticated (and expensive) models with waste tanks. For the space-challenged, you can purchase disposable urinals and “solid waste collections kits” such as those made by Travel John. Both toilets and disposable products can be found at camping supply stores.
A final word
You can’t eliminate your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, but there are plenty of things which you can do to limit that risk. It may be easiest to think in terms of driving. Almost no one stops driving because they might be in a collision, but most people take steps to keep themselves safe: wearing a seat belt, following the rules of the road and driving carefully in dangerous conditions. So do your research, decide on your safety measures and enjoy feeling warm during the coldest months of the year.
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