It’s a strange new world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and just about every aspect of life has changed in some way. Millions of Americans are telecommuting and learning from home, cloth face masks have become commonplace, and the travel industry has been crippled. The Transportation Security Administration reported up to a 96% decline in travel in April 2020 over the same time in 2019. Travel numbers increased by the middle of October but were still down around 63% over October 2019.
Travel restrictions and coronavirus precautions have also permeated the business travel industry. According to the Global Business Travel Association, 53% of businesses have canceled nonessential work trips while maintaining some business travel and 41% of businesses have canceled work-related travel altogether. It’s a better-safe-than-sorry approach that has businesses and employees assessing whether travel is absolutely essential.
Whether you’re an employee or employer, if you must travel for work, it’s vital you follow the most up-to-date restrictions and guidelines to stay safe.
Safe Business Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Not all businesses have the luxury of canceling travel outright, so it’s crucial to ensure business trips are as safe as possible. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 1970 Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace for employees, and that includes required travel. You can increase your chances of safe business travel using these guidelines.
Complete a Risk Assessment
Before you plan any business-related travel, complete a risk assessment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that travel increases your risk of contracting COVID-19, and staying home is the best option for staying safe. Still, it might not be as black and white if travel keeps your business running. Some factors to consider in your risk assessment include:
- Viability of Virtual Tools. Whenever possible, opt for virtual tools that limit the need for travel. Schedule a Zoom conference instead of meeting in person, utilize Google Slides for presentations, and use tools like Adobe Sign for documents that require a signature.
- Preexisting Conditions and Risk Factors. If you or the people you live with have any preexisting conditions or are in a group at high-risk for COVID-19 complications, you shouldn’t travel. If you’re an employee, talk to your employer about your concerns and discuss alternatives.
- Employee Alternatives. If you’re an employer, and someone who would normally take a trip is in a high-risk group, consider preparing a lower-risk employee to take the trip instead. The lower-risk employee can conference in the rest of your team to contribute while higher-risk employees avoid the hazard of traveling during a pandemic.
Unless you absolutely need to travel for business, don’t do so. While some companies can’t cancel all trips, your risk assessment helps you decide whether it’s safe to travel and can help you determine whether you need to seek out alternatives to in-person meetings.
Check for Coronavirus-Related Restrictions, Orders, & Bans
In some cases, you can rule out travel based on current travel restrictions. Since the pandemic and the various responses to it change almost daily, always check country, state, and local travel advisories before planning your trip. You can find current travel restrictions by visiting the destination’s travel website for international trips and state and local websites for domestic travel for up-to-date rules.
Always check county and city restrictions by visiting their respective websites. Local recommendations may differ from statewide rules and restrictions. You must understand current restrictions and advisories to make educated decisions and avoid travel disruptions.
Choose Safe Business Travel Partners
If you’ve decided travel is necessary, only book with carriers and partners that offer safe COVID-19 policies. Safety precautions vary from carrier to carrier unless mandated by the government, so ask what each partner is doing to keep passengers safe.
The CDC doesn’t currently require carriers to fulfill specific requirements but does recommend all passengers properly wear a mask while flying. Therefore, it’s up to each airline to introduce safety measures to keep passengers safe and healthy. Contact the airline directly to ask about policies or check Airlines for America for a breakdown of how each domestic airline is working to keep their passengers safe. Some of the safety precautions to ask about include:
- Blocked-Out Middle Seats and Social Distancing. Some airlines choose to sell only window and aisle seats to give passengers more space and the ability to socially distance on the flight. Check seating charts or ask about an airline’s social distancing policy before you book.
- Cleaning Protocols. The best airlines have an advanced cleaning protocol between flights, including sanitizing high-touch surfaces or using a machine called a fogger to disperse an antibacterial solution in cloud form on hard and soft surfaces throughout the cabin.
- Current Face Covering Policies. Who is required to wear a face mask while traveling? Are there any rules regarding how and when to wear face masks? How does the airline deal with passengers who refuse to wear face masks? Arrive at the airport with at least one DIY face mask or store-bought face mask (though it’s advisable to keep a backup or two in your carry-on in case the one you’re wearing gets soiled).
- Changes to Food Service. Some airlines have reduced food service options or are only offering prepackaged options. You may want to bring your own food if an airline limits food service or you don’t feel comfortable eating the snacks and meals provided during your flight.
- Available Supplies. Reputable airlines are making supplies available for all passengers. Ask about the availability of supplies like extra masks and hand sanitizer in the waiting areas, lounges, and on your flight.
- Reduced Face-to-Face Interaction. The CDC says limiting face-to-face interaction is the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19. The best airlines offer passengers ways to avoid those interactions by introducing touchless boarding passes, kiosks, and even offering snacks and sanitizer in seatback pockets.
Travel by Road
If you’re willing and able, business travel via car is often a better option. Car travel reduces some of the touchpoints and lack of social distancing common with most air travel. When taking a business road trip, you can limit the number of people you come into contact with and keep your surroundings sanitized. In some cases, renting a car can even save money.
Before you hit the road, keep these safety precautions in mind:
- Check with car rental companies to ensure they’re properly sanitizing their vehicles between rentals.
- Plan your route before you leave, and map out where and when to get gas and food.
- Pay for gas at the pump to avoid unnecessary physical contact.
- Wear a face mask any time you need to pay for gas or food face-to-face.
- Use the drive-thru when possible, and sit outside when eating.
- Wash or sanitize your hands frequently, especially after touching high-touch surfaces or before and after eating.
Create a COVID-19 Travel Kit
Before you hit the road, collect everything you need to travel safely. If you’re an employer, create a COVID-19 travel kit to give employees before they embark. Employees whose employers don’t provide one can create their own. Each kit should include:
- Hand Sanitizer. Look for a hand sanitizer gel that specifies it’s made of at least 60% alcohol, though the CDC recommends either an 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol concentration.
- Several Disposable Face Masks. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends using disposable masks only once before tossing, so calculate how often you’ll need a fresh mask. (Aim for at least three to five disposable face masks for each day of the trip.) If you choose to wear a fabric mask, include at least one for each day of your trip since the WHO suggests washing them daily.
- Sanitizing Wipes. The CDC recommends using disposable sanitizing wipes with a 70% concentration of alcohol. If you can’t find small travel packs, separate a dozen or so wipes from a larger package into several zip-close bags to make travel-friendly sizes.
- Tissues. Keep a package of tissues in your travel kit. Tissues don’t kill germs, but you can use them to cover your hands while opening doors or pushing elevator buttons or covering your nose and mouth if you sneeze or cough. But ensure you have a sanitary way to dispose of each one after you use it (such as a trash can next to the elevator). Otherwise, use hand sanitizer each time you use a high-touch surface.
- Necessary Personal Office Supplies. Avoid sharing supplies whenever possible. A supply of your own pens, notebooks, and your own laptop and tablet limits the transfer of germs from sharing among co-workers. Depending on your profession and the purpose of the trip, you may need additional supplies, such as a stylus for running presentations, drawing or drafting supplies (for artists and designers), or a microphone for projecting your voice across a crowd.
The WHO also offers resources and tips on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including:
- Proper Mask-Wearing. Wear masks over the nose and mouth, and discard disposable masks after one use. The WHO offers how-to videos for disposable medical masks and cloth masks.
- Socially Distancing. Maintain a distance of 6 feet from other travelers at all times whenever possible.
- Hand-Washing. Wash your hands frequently while traveling, especially after touching kiosks, public bathrooms, and high-touch surfaces like door handles and elevator buttons. Carry hand sanitizer for use when you can’t wash your hands.
- Avoiding the Three C’s. Avoid spaces that are closed, crowded, or involve close contact, such as restaurants, mixers, or in-office lunches.
- Seeking Medical Attention. If you’re the employer, ensure employees have access to emergency health care if they experience cough, fever, or breathing difficulties. Find health care options at the destination, and supply employees with a number to call if they have COVID-19 symptoms. If your employer doesn’t provide this information, ask or call ahead yourself to obtain it.
If you’re an employer, go over safety precautions with your employees and send them any pamphlets or videos before they embark on business travel. Even if you’re not there to remind your employees of safety guidelines, outfitting them with the right supplies and knowledge goes the extra mile in helping to protect them while they travel.
Practice Hotel Safety
If you’re staying at a hotel, you’re sharing a space with other guests and staff. Stay safe and use strategies to limit face-to-face contact, like:
- Using Virtual Check-In. Some hotels now offer touchless keys you download to your smartphone, eliminating the need for keycards and a physical check-in process.
- Sanitizing Your Room. Hotels should be sanitizing between guests, but use your sanitizing wipes for high-touch surfaces like door handles, TV remotes, toilet handles, and flat surfaces like dressers and nightstands.
- Opting Out of Daily Housekeeping. Skipping services allows you to avoid having people going in and out of your room.
- Exercising in Your Room. Avoid populated areas like the gym, pool, and hot tub.
- Avoiding High-Touch Surfaces. Cover your hand with a tissue to push elevator buttons or open doors, and wash your hands or use sanitizer after touching communal surfaces.
- Using Your Own Tech. Set your phone’s alarm clock or stream entertainment on your tablet or smartphone to avoid unnecessarily touching items in your room like the TV remote or alarm clock.
- Opting for an Airbnb Over a Hotel. Airbnb announced a new cleaning initiative in May 2020 to help property owners clean and sanitize their rentals between guests and create a 24-hour buffer between departures and arrivals. Renting an Airbnb reduces the likelihood of a face-to-face encounter since you’re typically the only guest in a property.
Limit Physical Contact
No matter how careful you are, some contact is unavoidable when traveling. Still, you can take measures to limit how frequently you touch surfaces or come into contact with other people to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Some simple ways to reduce the transmission of harmful germs and bacteria include:
- Avoiding High-Touch Surfaces. Use touchless ticketing whenever possible by loading boarding passes on your phone. You can also use kiosks instead of face-to-face services when offered. If you do have to touch surfaces, wash or sanitize your hands thoroughly.
- Keeping Your Distance. Give yourself plenty of room in the gate waiting area before boarding the plane, and stay 6 feet from other people whenever possible.
- Avoiding Public Restrooms. If possible, stick to going to the bathroom in your hotel room. When you have to use a public restroom, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds.
- Being Patient. Wait when deplaning to give yourself plenty of distance from other passengers.
- Staying in Your Room. Skip optional populated events like conferences, business lunches, or mixers. Bring plenty of things to do in your downtime, such as inexpensive books to read, adult coloring supplies, or portable video gaming consoles like the Nintendo Switch.
Stay Safe After Travel
No matter how you slice it, travel increases your risk for contracting COVID-19, and you might have coronavirus even if you aren’t showing symptoms. Stay safe and protect others in the weeks after your business trip by scheduling a lighter workload and staying home for 14 days after your trip. If you don’t have one already, it’s a good idea to have a home office available and ready for you. Employers should make accommodations so employees can self-quarantine to protect at-risk individuals in the office.
Be vigilant about monitoring your health after the trip. The CDC recommends contacting your doctor if you have symptoms like a fever, cough, or congestion. Before you schedule an appointment, let your doctor know you’ve been traveling. Whether you test positive for COVID-19 or you have coronavirus symptoms, let any co-workers you’ve been in contact with and your manager know so they can take precautions or get a test.
Everyone’s anxious to get on the road again, but if you’re an employer, you’re responsible for creating the official policies that help to keep yourself and your employees safe and compliant while traveling for work. Stay in open communication so employees know what you expect of them and how to travel safely. Ensure everyone is on the same page so they know how to travel safely and what to do if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus while on the road.
If you’re an employee anticipating a business trip, reach out to your employer to find out what kind of travel safety plan they’ve put together. With a little prep and training, traveling for work will slowly but surely become a safe and positive experience again.
Does your company have a coronavirus travel safety program? How does it measure up?