What It’s Like Out There: Family Travel During the Pandemic

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When COVID-19 reached the U.S. and states started shutting down in March, I didn’t think we’d have to cancel our family vacation plans in June. But June came and went without that trip to Montana. Summer hit us hard. It sure is hot in DC, and that heat doesn’t disappear when the sun goes down. I missed my family and summertime in Maine, where you can spend all day out in the sun without breaking a sweat and pull on a hoodie at night to keep cozy during the evening chill. The way life should be, they say. But could my family travel during the pandemic?

After months of being bound to our home, it wasn’t easy for me to wrap my head around preparing for a family road trip. Our family had expanded by one since we last made a trip like this, and I was out of practice for packing and planning. Plus, I was worried about catching—or worse, spreading—COVID-19. After being stir-crazy in the DC heat and desperate to see loved ones who lived too far (we have no family in the DMV area), we made the decision to do the trip.

And it seems like many families in the DMV were thinking about family travel at that time during the pandemic as well. There were plenty of posts in the local Facebook groups I belong to with parents reaching out about road-tripping with children, with concerns about using public bathrooms especially. Have travel urinals sold out yet?

For me, I just couldn’t fathom getting tested for COVID-19. With the stress of juggling work and childcare and all that goes with that during a pandemic (why does the house seem messier, the dishes and laundry more of a chore, etc.), making time to get tested was the one thing I did not want to do. Plus, I’ve heard it’s the WORST! My husband and I worked together to find time to make it happen despite the fact that it disrupted dinner and bedtime with the kids. We went at separate times to juggle the kids, and it took about an hour from when we started standing in line to when the test was over. And all in all, if I have to get tested again, I won’t mind. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, but it was definitely unpleasant.

With the test out of the way, I could finally take the trip seriously and start packing. Since we wanted to avoid having to go to the grocery store at our destinations, we stocked up here and packed a few bags plus a cooler. With two little boys who love milk, this took a serious toll on how much space we had in our trunk! I also tucked a picnic blanket in the car, thinking we’d picnic at rest stops. My oldest is still potty training, so we had a little potty for him in the back. We threw in some masks and hand sanitizer and we were as ready as we were going to be. We were going to try family travel during the pandemic!

Here’s what I noticed on my journey north on I-95:

People in the northeast are wearing masks—for the most part.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was literally living in a bubble before venturing outside of DC. All I know is that people in my DC neighborhood were wearing masks then, and still are now. I haven’t seen anyone in the stores in my neighborhood without a mask. It was nice to see that most people that I saw along the way up I-95 were also wearing masks.

Now, I can’t say EVERYONE in the northeast is wearing masks. I saw a few standouts who were not wearing masks, and even a few who were not wearing masks and walked by a little too close for comfort. (I’m talking about you, lady with the dog at the Chesapeake House Travel Plaza who’s son was riding his hoverboard without a mask on a little too close to our car while we were picnicking nearby away from everyone else. Just why?)

People are still using rest stops.

Speaking of rest stops, I am not sure why, but I expected them to be completely empty. They weren’t. But again, for the most part, I saw people wearing masks, washing their hands, and being respectful of distancing. My husband and I both used the rest stop bathrooms, and we also ordered food at a few rest stops. We ate on our picnic blanket in any grassy areas we could find away from the buildings. Of course, what I didn’t realize is that people also use those areas for walking their dogs. So there’s that. But family travel during the pandemic? People are doing it.

Communities are supporting wearing masks and talking about the rules.

As we drove up the east coast, we saw digital road signs saying things like “NY Strong” and “Wear Your Mask.” These signs signaled that states are pulling together to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Each state we drove through had some sort of sign that they were working to end this spread together. These signs gave me comfort that at least the messaging in the area was about stopping the spread of the virus and letting travelers know that these states are taking the pandemic seriously.

I also found it interesting how much people were talking about the rules. For example, in New York, I often heard waitresses talk about Governor Cuomo’s mandate that customers must order a meal if they would like to order a drink. Some bars in the area of New York I was in were selling Cuomo Dogs to comply. I just thought this was so interesting—I don’t remember a time before COVID when people were talking about a governor as much.

I got the vibe that social distancing and wearing masks are becoming things that people just do.

It didn’t seem that people were afraid to wear masks out in public, keep their distance from others, and still do things that they enjoy. I got the vibe that people in the northeast are trying to move on with their lives while taking precautions. That we don’t have to stop living completely. We just need to do what we need to do to survive the situation and move on. It was a very subtle vibe, but noticeable since I have been stuck in my homebound bubble for so long. It made me think, maybe we can start living our lives again, within reason.

So, with the holidays coming up, is it safe to travel?

Initially, I thought it was fine. We always wore our masks, and we used hand sanitizer often. My son learned that we get in the car and we use hand sanitizer every time. But I also have friends who live in the northeast posting on social media about tourists who are putting their communities at risk. I may be from the area, but I was entering as a tourist and I can understand the concern. But I also see social media posts from friends who live in the northeast who are angry about state-wide restrictions.

I thought all was great—until we returned and articles started coming out about how traveling and small family gatherings and celebrations were spreading COVID rapidly. The idea of traveling and spreading the virus is horrifying. So, is it safe to travel? I think it’s still a risk.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

Was it irresponsible for me and my family to travel through several states to visit with elderly family members? Probably it was. But, I am trying to find a balance between being in fear of the virus and taking precautions. I think it’s a balance we’ll all have to deal with as the pandemic continues. We’ll need to figure out phase two of the “new normal” since it’s not really “new” anymore.

Will we travel again? I’m not sure. I will say it’s very hard being so far away from older family members for so long. There’s so much I could be doing for them if I were there. But it is also super weird being “out there” and away from our home in DC. Despite it all, my family is not planning on traveling over the holidays. With more cases on the rise and states announcing new restrictions, traveling seems like a risk.

But what are you planning to do? Are you thinking about traveling for the holidays? Share your thoughts on family travel during the pandemic in the comments below. I’d love to learn from your experiences.

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