Evolving restrictions have travelers on edge

Jhon Thor

It is difficult to imagine how the government would impose the stricter travel measures. Experts say new testing requirements or travel limits could harm the travel industry. But for now the prospect of further restrictions is doing little besides adding uncertainty to an already uncertain situation.

Some people doubt that federal interstate travel bans would ever be imposed. “It’s hard to see how federal restrictions on interstate travel could be enforced outside of air travel and, I suppose, Amtrak,” says Michael Montgomery, a frequent traveler who teaches in the Department of Health and Human Services at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

He’s right. Stopping spring break travelers from driving to Florida or California might turn into a logistical nightmare. It’s not hard to imagine long lines at roadblocks on Interstate 95, with motorists being turned away at state lines. An interstate ban would also trigger a wave of refund requests that could rival those seen last year, when airlines canceled thousands of flights after the first shutdown orders.

New restrictions would have “profoundly harmful effects” on travelers and the travel industry, says Jase Ramsey, a management professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who studies tourism. After nearly a year of shutdowns, Americans need a vacation, he says. Having to cancel trips, possibly at the last minute, would strain an already difficult situation.

“Both new rules reportedly being considered would harm the travel industry economically,” Ramsey adds. That’s particularly true for states like Florida, a favorite spring break destination. But it could have a ripple effect across the entire travel industry, potentially pushing even more airlines, car rental companies and hotel chains to the brink of insolvency.

At a minimum, adding a negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test requirement for domestic air travel would raise the cost of air travel. A coronavirus test costs about $100, so for a family of four that could add $800 to the price of a round trip. A study conducted by Visual Approach Analytics on behalf of Southwest Airlines suggests that adding such a requirement would result in an additional 53 million car trips this year.

Some travelers say the new restrictions won’t derail their plans. Raul Mercado and his partner booked a combination spring break getaway and family visit to Mexico in March. Then the U.S. government announced a mandatory coronavirus test for inbound air travelers.

The rule requires that travelers get tested within the allotted time before the flight, says Mercado, who lives in Austin and runs a camping website, and “if the test comes back positive, then you must find additional accommodations” before flying home.

“We haven’t seen my partner’s family in over two years,” he says.

Others are wary of making travel plans. Jenny Korn, a researcher in Boston, lost her father to covid-19 and supports the proposed restrictions. But, she says, travel would be difficult unless airlines cooperated with the government.

“I want the travel industry and federal government to collaborate,” she says, and provide free testing before domestic flights.

I feel conflicted, too. I’m trying to plan travel for this spring. I have to move because my lease runs out in Arizona. I was hoping to return to Florida to visit friends, but I have a recurring nightmare that my family will get turned away at the Alabama-Florida state line on Interstate 10. It would give us a great excuse to see old friends on the Gulf Coast in Alabama, but we would be stuck there until Florida reopens. Like other travelers I spoke with for this story, I’m not going to let that stop me. But I’m going to have a backup plan, just in case.

Even if the government tightens travel restrictions, experts don’t anticipate that it will do so for long. “As the situation continues to improve, it will be reasonable to slowly and incrementally loosen the bolts on covid-19 mitigation restrictions,” says K.C. Rondello, an epidemiologist and professor at Adelphi University’s College of Nursing and Public Health. “But it’s important to remember that doing so too abruptly or prematurely could have catastrophic consequences. So, as much as we are all desperate for a return to normalcy, it’s critical that we implement the changes gradually and judiciously.”

In other words, we’re almost through this dark chapter for travelers. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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