Expert Advice: Should ‘Snowbirds’ Stay or Go?


For the millions of Americans who make the migration between North and South as the seasons change, the coronavirus outbreak has created a difficult dilemma: Are they better off staying where they are, or heading home? Because they are older, the so-called snowbirds, are at higher risk of Covid-19 complications.

Choosing to return home or to stay put if one is healthy is an individual decision, experts said. Though some, like Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a medical epidemiologist and adjunct professor at Cornell University Public Health, came down adamantly on the stay side of the question.

[Read the stories of older Americans facing the question of whether to return North.]

“Stay where you are, especially if your situation allows you to avoid contact with other people,” he said. “If you are perfectly safe quarantining where you are, that would be preferable than driving many hours in a car and risking exposure.”

For those who still aren’t sure, here’s what to take into account.

That advice comes from Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental public health sciences at New York University School of Global Public Health.

Dr. Caravanos suggests making a list of all the possible human interactions — which proportionally increase the risk of infection — that you would experience where you are vacationing versus back home.

“Shopping, neighbors, walking down your street, walking your dog,” Dr. Caravanos said. “Then compare that to your destination site. Are you going to be around as many people? Is it likely that you are going to be surrounded by infected people?”

Saskia Popescu, a senior infection preventionist at HonorHealth, a nonprofit health care group based in Arizona, said it is crucial to assess the situation back home.

“Travel is one risk factor,” she said. “But are you leaving a place that has less transmission and less risk to go back home? That seems like it might be something to reconsider.”

On the flip side, she said, is the question of whether you will continue to have access to food, medical care and other essential goods where you are staying.

For those who do choose to travel home, experts said driving is preferable to flying as it reduces contact with other people, lessening the risk of getting infected. It is also important to continue taking the same precautions on the road, experts said. Washing or sanitizing hands after touching any surfaces and remaining at least six feet away from other people — especially when stopping for gas, to eat or to rest.

So far, the United States has not restricted domestic travel, though individual states like Florida have told newcomers like New Yorkers that they should self-quarantine if they visit; there have been no limits on travel between states.

Although some accommodations have closed, many hotels, motels, rest stops and gas stations remain open during the outbreak, said Dr. Alex M. Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.

If you choose to drive back home, carefully choreographing your trip before departing is highly recommended, Dr. Susskind said.

“They should map their journeys and make reservations ahead of time at the hotels,” Dr. Susskind said. “Make sure that there are sufficient gas stations that are open and rest stops along the way.”

Once travelers have developed a game plan, sharing the itinerary with friends and family (especially if it changes along the way) is also key, Dr. Susskind said. They should follow up with hotels, and other places they plan to stop along the way (convenience stores, rest stops, gas stations, restaurants) as the situation can change in a matter of hours. And they should have a backup plan in case anything changes along the route. Those who take medications should bring more than what they need for the trip in case of an emergency, Dr. Susskind added.

“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to also identify health care providers along the route in the event that something happened,” Dr. Susskind said. “It’s really just the idea of setting up a plan from beginning to end of all of your needs.”


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