As states across the country push forward to reopen businesses and schools, many Americans are being asked to return to work. Most companies have instituted safety policies in an effort to reduce the chances of employees catching or spreading COVID-19, but getting to and from an office or other worksite can come with its own set of risks.
The Centers for Disease Control or Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding close contact with others on your commute if at all possible. Rather than use public transportation or carpooling, the agency suggests that individuals consider biking, walking, and driving alone or with other members of your household.
But following these guidelines may be impossible for the many people who don’t own a car or live in a pedestrian-friendly area. So what’s a commuter to do?
For the most part, your ability to reduce coronavirus risk rests on your ability to keep your distance from others, and that depends on what sort of transportation you’re taking. “For example, when traveling by airplane you’re more of a ‘captive audience,’ compared to when you’re a passenger on the subway,” says Paul S. Pottinger, MD, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.
That’s because once you’re in the air, you’re mainly stuck in your seat; on the subway, if someone pulls down their mask or starts shouting into their phone, you can move away or even get off at the next stop if necessary, Dr. Pottinger says.
Although there will always be unknowns to navigate in a world with COVID-19, a little planning along with following public health guidelines on masks and social distancing will go a long way. Keep reading to find out how to stay as safe as possible while traveling to and from work.
RELATED: Life After Lockdown: COVID-19 Safety Tips for Offices, Restaurants, and Hair Salons
Subways and Trains
Some good news first: A growing amount of research suggests that riding the subway or a train may be safer than you think. Santé Publique France, the national public health agency, identified only four COVID-19 clusters in Paris related to transportation as of July 15 — roughly 1 percent of all clusters, reported Scientific American. Similarly, researchers in Japan found no clusters connected to the country’s commuter trains.
Still, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable in the close confines of a subway or train car. Here are a few ways to mitigate risk.
Wear a comfortable mask at all times. “We know that the virus is spread by droplets from the mouth or nose of one person to the mouth or nose of another. That’s why public health guidance about face coverings or masks is so incredibly key — because it reduces droplet transmission from one person, and it protects the next person who’s wearing a mask,” says Pottinger.
It’s important that your mask fit correctly, be worn properly (covering both your mouth and nose), and feel comfortable. “If a face covering is uncomfortable it’s tempting to fiddle with it or touch it, and you should not touch your mask. If you have to adjust it once in a while that’s okay, but you have to clean your hands before and after,” says Pottinger.
Maintain personal space. Keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and anyone else, whether you’re waiting on the platform or on the train itself. “This is especially true if you identify people who aren’t wearing a face covering — you just have to give them a wide berth, a minimum of six feet,” says Pottinger.
Pottinger prefers the term “personal space” to social distancing. “You can be socially close but physically far, which is one reason I prefer the term personal space; I think most Americans are all about their personal space,” he says.
Practice good hand hygiene. Although it’s not the main way that the coronavirus spreads, you can potentially catch COVID-19 from touching a subway pole or other object that may be contaminated with the virus. “If people are touching the seat or any other surface in the car, they should wash their hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub before touching their face,” Pottinger says. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) states that there are hand sanitizer dispensers in every station and the agency recommends that people carry their own as well.
Don’t let gloves trick you into feeling safe. If there’s coronavirus on you hands, that by itself is no threat — it’s only when your hands make their way to your face that there’s a problem, and that can still occur even if you’re wearing gloves, says Pottinger.
“Our concern is that if people are wearing gloves, they may have a false sense of security. It’s better for people to wash their hands frequently or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer rather than wear gloves,” he says. The CDC recommends that the general public not wear gloves in most situations unless caring for someone who is sick.
Travel during off-peak hours if possible. The website of your local transit authority may have information about what times the subways and trains are busiest in your city. If your schedule is flexible, the MTA suggests adjusting your travel times in order to avoid crowds and stay safer. According to the MTA, rush hours in New York City have shifted somewhat, with most people riding between 6 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 5 p.m..
RELATED: What It Was Like to Fly: A Pandemic Tell-All
It’s helpful if there’s public health guidance that limits the number of people allowed on a bus or train car at any given time. “That improves the ability of people to have their six feet of personal space,” says Pottinger.
In addition to following the same basic precautions you would on a train platform or train, there are a few extra steps to keep in mind that take advantage of the windows on a bus.
Peek inside before you get on. If the bus is crowded or people aren’t wearing masks, don’t get on. The next bus might be safer.
Crack open a window. If the windows of the bus is open, this can also help you reduce coronavirus risk by increasing the amount of fresh air circulating. “Fresh air makes a big difference in the spread of the virus. Air changes per hour (ACH) is one way we measure the freshness of the air; in a situation where strangers are going to be sharing the same space, we want the atmosphere to be as fresh as it possibly can be,” says Pottinger.
“Some trains and subways may have good air handling systems, but it’s easier to achieve when you can just open a window — the problem of getting fresh air is solved,” says Pottinger, adding that even if fresh air is circulating, you still need to wear a mask, keep distance between you and other people, and be sure your hands are very clean.
RELATED: Legionnaire’s Disease Risk Grows as Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift
Carpooling and Ride Sharing
Whether or not it’s your vehicle or someone else’s, if you’re in a car with people outside your household there’s a risk of spreading or contracting the virus. “Usually ride sharing is a great practice that’s good for the environment, but because of COVID-19 it’s become a health concern,” says Pottinger.
Do a health check-in. It may seem like common sense, but the number one rule is don’t share a ride with anyone who is showing symptoms of COVID-19, such as coughing, sneezing, or a dripping nose — that’s clearly an unsafe situation, says Pottinger.
Make sure everyone wears a mask. Even if everyone in the car appears healthy, masks are non-negotiable and need to be worn by all passengers. “Part of the threat of the virus is that it can be spread to and from people who aren’t exhibiting any symptoms,” says Pottinger.
Roll down the windows. Again, keeping a good flow of fresh air through the car can help reduce the risk of transmission. “You can do that through the air handling system, climate control system, or by cracking a window. Increased fresh air in combination with all passengers wearing face coverings and practicing good hand hygiene can make sharing a car ride a relatively safe way to travel,” Pottinger says.
Talking, yes; karaoke, no. “If everyone in the car is wearing a face covering that fits, normal conversation should be very safe — I don’t think people need to sit in stoic silence while riding together,” says Pottinger. “However, I would definitely recommend against karaoke and singing competitions of any kind when you’re riding in a car with people outside your household,” he says with a laugh. When it comes to shouting or singing, the louder and stronger someone’s voice, the greater the number of viral particles that the person could potentially shed, he explains.
RELATED: From Nose to Toes, the List of COVID-19 Symptoms Keeps Growing
Bike Riding or Walking
The “self-powered” commuters who are biking, scootering, or walking need to remember that it is possible to catch COVID-19 outdoors, says Pottinger. “There’s less risk than indoors because of factors like air dilution, air currents, and ultraviolet light during the day, but it’s still a risk,” he says.
Wear a mask. “We recommend very strongly that people who might be within six feet of others wear a face covering even if they’re outside. For walkers, that isn’t too hard, but it can be more challenging for runners or vigorous cyclists,” he says.
“It’s safe to wear a mask while doing these activities. You can get enough oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide, but there’s a perception where people feel that they cannot catch their breath, and it can feel uncomfortable and unpleasant,” says Pottinger.
Give others their space. People who choose to run or bike without a face covering need to maintain at least six feet of space between themselves and people in the street, he says. “It may not give them the same workout that they’re accustomed to getting during their commute, but these folks need to follow the rules like everyone else. It’s a courtesy to others and it’s an important safety precaution as well,” says Pottinger.
RELATED: What Face Masks Are Best for Exercise? Here’s Everything You Need to Know