As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, travelers are becoming fearful of flying leading major airlines to cut their flights and change their policies.
The rapid spread of coronavirus is fast turning spring break into an opportunity to keep college students and children away from classrooms to contain COVID-19.
Some New York colleges have already canceled classes, extending the spring break week that begins March 16. Other universities moved classes online exclusively and warned the virtual education plan could last the remainder of the semester.
New York’s K-12 schools are also facing COVID-19 closure decisions and distance-learning uncertainty heading into their spring break week in early April.
Meanwhile, students, parents and educators are facing last-minute decisions on canceling or revising spring break travel. It’s a dilemma that seemingly requires eliminating destinations regularly as the coronavirus surges across the U.S. and world.
It all comes together as the evolving COVID-19 outbreak prompted a U.S. government warning not to board a cruise ship or long flight if you’re frail, as well as convention and event cancellations from coast to coast.
Two travel health experts described making travel decisions for the upcoming spring break season and beyond as a moving target.
People should ultimately weigh a myriad list of factors, such as heightened risks for elderly and expanding quarantines, during the COVID-19 travel volatility, they said.
“There’s a lot of panic and fear out there, and basically it’s about how much risk they’re willing to tolerate,” said Tullia Marcolongo, executive director of International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.
“If it’s going to cause emotional duress or stress going, you will not enjoy the trip and maybe you should cancel,” she added.
Dr. Lin Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, expanded on the daily updates on COVID-19 impacts on travel.
She cited the prospect that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, would keep adding to its list of COVID-19 travel advisories, which currently recommend against non-essential travel to China, South Korea, Italy and Iran.
The CDC travel warnings are key because schools, businesses and public health officials use them to guide decisions on everything from quarantines to closures.
“Is it going to eventually come down to CDC announcing everybody that has gone outside of their home town to stay within a certain range? It’s really hard to say,” Chen said.
Why are colleges moving classes online, discouraging spring break trips?
Some colleges, including New York University and Syracuse University, this week moved to conduct classes online to limit potential COVID-19 exposures.
The remote learning plans, in many ways, are designed to keep students at home as long as possible. SU, for instance, advised students to leave campus as soon as possible.
Some colleges were also asking students to pack for spring break as if they weren’t returning to campus for an extended period.
NYU plans to revisit its online class strategy after spring break week and consider extending it.
“Under any circumstances, classes will be held through the end of the semester to ensure the academic continuity and progress of our students,” the college stated on Monday.
Syracuse University plans to conduct its classes online through at least March 30 amid ongoing review of the outbreak developments.
Cornell said Tuesday it will start transitioning to online learning immediately, so by April 6 the whole Ithaca campus “will move entirely to virtual, remote learning.”
State University of New York, or SUNY, campuses were also considering a range of COVID-19 emergency actions.
University at Albany was “actively engaged in planning exercises for the possibility of implementing distance education, should circumstances warrant,” according to an email to students on Tuesday.
“Professors have been asked to consider how they could best adapt their courses to deliver instruction if face-to-face interaction is not an option,” the email added.
SUNY Geneseo told students concerned about COVID-19 that they could stay on campus over spring break, according to the college’s website, but warned “food service during break is very limited and bus service to Wegmans also is suspended during the break.”
Many colleges had previously banned university-related travel to countries hit hardest by coronavirus and suspended study abroad programs.
But some universities recently started discouraging students from unnecessary domestic travel during spring break, citing the growing tally of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., at 804 on Tuesday afternoon, according to a Johns Hopkins University data dashboard.
What spring break travelers need to know about COVID-19?
Some key factors involved in travel decisions include asking employers and school officials about quarantine rules, experts said.
For example, some colleges and employers are asking travelers returning from areas affected by COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days upon return, such as the SUNY students in suspended study abroad programs.
Another issue is whether there is community spread of COVID-19 connected to the destination, as opposed to cases imported from known clusters.
Most of upstate New York, for instance, has yet to see confirmed cases while New Rochelle in Westchester County has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.
“Making the decision to travel is really about coming up to date about the destination,” said Chen, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Marcolongo expanded on the preparedness, suggesting travelers contact medical providers and hospitals to learn more about COVID-19 responses that vary depending upon the location.
“It’s important to understand how the health care system works at your destination,” she said.
Yet the rising number of cases expected this week in New York and across the country as testing ramps up suggests COVID-19 traveling restrictions may soon reach a tipping point.
“At some point the organization may say, ‘OK, it doesn’t really matter where you go because we have it here, we have it next door and we have it in the next state,” Chen said.
“But it’s changing so quickly that everybody has to sort of think about where they’re going and when they’re going and what the current quarantine rules are,” she added.
Further, the uncertainty underscored the COVID-19 risks for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems. As a result, health officials are advising the high-risk groups to limit public exposures in general.
What to know about COVID-19 travel insurance in New York
State regulators last week announced travel insurance companies and travel agents will offer New York residents and businesses the ability to purchase coverage when making travel plans that would allow them to cancel a trip for any reason, including for reasons related to COVID-19.
The Department of Financial Services issued guidance allowing travel agents and travel insurers to offer this type of coverage after DFS received consumer complaints that such polices were not available in New York, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The new action was designed to provide reassurance to New York businesses and residents who are seeking to make plans that may involve travel to locations that are not currently under travel advisories due to COVID-19, Cuomo said in a statement.
Six global and national insurance companies have agreed to offer “cancel for any reason” coverage to travelers, including: Allianz, Nationwide, Starr Indemnity, Berkshire, Crum & Forster, and Zurich, according to Cuomo’s office.
State regulators also directed travel insurance issuers in New York to proactively reach out to individuals and businesses who bought their policies to let them know what is covered, Cuomo said.
For further details about travel insurance rules in New York, visit the Department of Financial Services website at dfs.ny.gov or call its hotline at (800) 342-3736.
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