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What's the safest way to travel ? Your COVID-19 questions answered.

From domestic travel to public transit, here's what you're asking us today

Ania Bessonov, Andrew Culbert · CBC News · Posted: Jun 18, 2020 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: June 23

If I have to travel, is it safer to drive or fly?

After months of being homebound, many Canadians are itching to get moving or they're desperate to take care of some long distance personal matters they had to put off for the pandemic.

Whether they have to travel across the country or within their province or territory, many Canadians, like Cathy G., are wondering what's the safest way to get to their destination.

First, it's important to remember that all provinces and territories are still advising against non-essential travel at this time. New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and the three territories have actually barred Canadian visitors from entering their borders unless they meet specific criteria.

But if you absolutely have to go, the experts we spoke to said car travel is safest when it comes to avoiding the coronavirus, assuming that you're travelling with people in your household or social bubble.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says cars are the safest mode of transportation for long-distance travel because you can are able to physically distance. 'On a plane, train or bus, you are then in an enclosed space in relatively close proximity to others for a prolonged period of time. Physical distancing is not always possible.' (Paul Smith/CBC)

"Maintaining social distancing is much easier in a car and motels, or camping, than it is on a plane or in a train," said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. "I don't think that there is any question that driving is safer."

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., agrees that hotels and cars are the safest way for long distance travel because other modes of transportation pose more risks.

"On a plane, train or bus, you are then in an enclosed space in relatively close proximity to others for a prolonged period of time. Physical distancing is not always possible," he said.

Experts have found that being in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time can increase the risk of transmission.

So, while passengers can help mitigate some of the risk by wearing masks, Chakrabarti said that "the risk is present and needs to be considered."

Health Canada's website doesn't address this question specifically but it has set out some guidelines on domestic travel. The agency emphasizes avoiding crowds and following local public health advice, which may require travellers to isolate for 14 days.

Am I able to give my friend a ride? What's the risk?

If you have to take the car, what about giving a lift to a friend who isn't in your household?

That's what Laura S. asked us.

The answer is, it depends. 

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said it's "unacceptably risky" because of the close proximity between people and advises against it.

"Close, shared airspace for a non-trivial amount of time is the riskiest thing one can do," he said. "An open convertible would perhaps be acceptable, but that's not an option for most people."

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta, said if you must drive with strangers or people not in your social bubble, you should try to create as much distance between people as possible.

"You want to have them sit kitty-corner from you in the vehicle so you're not right next to each other," she said.

It's also a good idea to open the windows to get the fresh air flowing.

What if I have to take a taxi?

The same advice applies to taxi and ride-sharing services. Uber is advising its drivers to ask passengers to sit in the back seat and to open windows to improve ventilation whenever possible. 

Watch Taking a taxi, Uber or Lyft: What to expect

  • 22 days ago

  • 1:35

  • Turn captions on

Taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have made some changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrew Chang walks through what to expect when you’re catching a ride.   1:35

Health officials in Quebec and the City of Toronto recommend installing a physical barrier — like a sheet of vinyl or a Plexiglas shield — between drivers and passengers. If this isn't possible, drivers should wear a mask. 

They've also advised limiting the number of passengers, observing good hand hygiene and if passengers with symptoms need a ride to the hospital, they should wear a mask, too.

What about public transit? Is it safe? 

With more Canadians returning to work, we've had a number of readers, including Lynda C., ask us if public transit is safe to use. 

The experts we spoke to said there's risk whenever you leave your house, but especially when you're in an enclosed space with people outside your household. But there are ways to make public transit safer. 

Robyn Lee, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said maintaining physical distance and observing good hand hygiene can reduce the risk of transmission. She also suggested taking transit during off-peak hours.

"Fewer people travelling at rush hour will make it easier for those who have to be at work at 9 a.m. to safely physically distance," she said, "and for those who can start work outside peak hours, this would allow them to better physically distance on their commute to work as well."

And if there's an option to avoid using transit in general, it might be worth considering, Chakrabarti said, especially while the weather permits.

"If there is any leg of the journey that can be done outside, like walking or biking, where possible, do this," he said.

Various transit authorities are also trying to reduce the risk by implementing precautionary measures, like creating physical distancing between seats, installing Plexiglas for drivers and recommending or mandating masks for passengers

"To keep transit safe, this will take co-operation of all of us," said Lee.

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