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As more people get vaccinated against COVID, is it safe to travel again?

We asked a doctor if they would feel comfortable getting on an airplane or staying in a hotel as state and federal leaders try to speed up the vaccine rollout.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When was the last time you took a vacation? Because of the pandemic, travel restrictions have been in place for several months.

The U.S. Travel Association predicts travel could pick up again by April, now that the coronavirus vaccine is being distributed across the country. A study by "Destination Analysts" found six out of 10 Americans say they're in desperate need of a break because of the stress of the pandemic. It's hard to resist with airlines offering some of the lowest ticket prices of all time.

But doctors say not so fast. Even with travel restrictions and an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to travel, AAA estimates 84.5 million Americans still took a trip between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3. In the weeks following the holidays, we've seen sharp increases in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. 

Doctors fear we'll stop any progress if we try to do too much, too soon.

RELATED: US holiday travel hits pandemic record despite COVID-19 warnings

We asked Dr. Michael Teng with the University of South Florida if he would be comfortable flying right now.

"You know, I don't have travel that I view is that essential to, you know, go out there, if there were some things that were essential, then it would be a different matter," Teng said. "But all the travel that I really have now is kind of nonessential travel, and it just doesn't seem to make sense to even take a chance."

His opinion about flying doesn't change much when you factor in the coronavirus vaccine.

"I'd be more willing to go on an airplane if both me and my family were vaccinated. But again, it would be vacation travel, so it would have to be all of us," Teng said.

He's more open to the idea of staying in a hotel right now, since generally once you're inside, you stick mostly to your room. 

"I think a lot of the hotels have pretty good cleaning protocols in place, especially in some of the larger chains, that you don't have standardized cleaning protocols throughout the country," Teng said. "So yeah, I think I would stay [in a] hotel."

We asked Teng about why he'd be more comfortable traveling once more people are vaccinated:

"There's a certain level of anxiety maybe that you don't want to mess up. You don't want to, you know, you don't want to say, 'Oh, I made a mistake or did something kind of a little bit risky,'" Teng said. "It's easier when you have a little bit of a backstop, where you say, well, even if I eat in the food court, for example, which is a higher risk thing. 

"Even if I'm exposed, I have a secondary level of protection besides the physical masks and social distancing that we're doing." 

It could take even longer for the travel industry to recover. The president and CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) says COVID-19 has wiped out 10 years worth of hotel job growth. The group says while leisure travel may start to return this year because of the vaccine, they don't expect business travel to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

“Despite the challenges facing the hotel industry, we are resilient. Hotels across the country are focused on creating an environment ready for guests when travel begins to return. AHLA is eager to work with the new Administration and Congress on policies that will ultimately help bring back travel, from helping small business hoteliers keep their doors open to ramping up vaccine distribution and testing,” AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers said in a statement.

Even if you can't travel far, the U.S. Travel Association is reminding you to plan out those paid days off from work. They say a third of Americans didn't take all of their vacation days during 2020. Many companies that offer the perk have a "use it or lose it" policy, meaning your leaving money on the table if you don't take time off. 

Tuesday, Jan. 26, is National Plan for Vacation Day, so take the time to add time off to your schedule.

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