Ask the experts: Is it safe to travel?

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    It’s a question on everyone’s minds these days. We asked two experts to address your concerns.

    We all miss traveling. Over the last years, as the skies opened up, and flights became cheaper, people have been traveling the world more than ever. Mini breaks, ski holidays, long-haul travel to exotic destinations – Covid-19 has put a stop to everything.

    In March, Israel – like so many other countries around the world – announced a strict travel ban. Only Israeli citizens, and students from abroad, can enter the country, and they have to quarantine for two weeks.

    While some airlines have resumed flights since then, including Air Canada, Delta, Lufthansa, Wizz Air and Ryanair, flights are few and far between and they certainly aren’t bringing in tourists.

    Plans to reopen Israeli skies on August 16 to a greater number of flights also look doomed to failure.

    After an excellent early start bringing corona numbers down to just 20 or so a day, the country opened up too fast. New cases are now hovering around 1,500 to 2,000 a day and Israel has one of the highest morbidity rates in the world per capita, making other countries reluctant to let Israeli tourists in.

    Despite the difficulties, however, there are opportunities to travel and more will emerge. Should we be taking them?

    We invited you to send in your questions and asked two experts, Mark Feldman, CEO and founder of Ziontours Jerusalem and Dr. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, for their thoughts. Find out their answers below.

    Travel by air

    1. How safe is it to be on a 14-hour trans-Atlantic flight? 

    Mark Feldman: It’s extremely safe on the three airlines flying nonstop from Tel Aviv to North America. United flies to Newark, Delta to JFK and Air Canada to Toronto. All three are adamant that their cleaning procedures far exceed what has been recommended.  The cleaning and disinfection procedure is followed diligently and where possible they block middle seats.

    1. What will the airline do to provide a Covid-19 safe trip, and what additional safety measures can we take as passengers? 

    Mark Feldman: Facemasks are now mandatory at all the airports and throughout the flight. Food is given in a box upon take-off and another meal is handed out prior to landing. Trolley service has been banned.

    1. Is it safe for people over the age of 70, or who are in the vulnerable risk demographic, to fly at this time? Should we wait for a vaccine in 12-18 months? 

    Mark Feldman: Again, the act of flying in and of itself is not the risk. It’s where the person is going. It also depends on the reason. I would hesitate about an elderly person flying over to Florida for the summer. But if he or she were going to upstate New York where the numbers are under 1% then I have no concerns.

    Eyal Leshem: Travel at an older age and with severe Covid-19 risk factors is risky and the necessity of travel should be weighed against the potential risk. All travelers must have comprehensive travel health and evacuation insurance in case they fall ill because the expenses of Covid-19 treatment may be very high.

    1. Airlines advertise that their planes have filters and the air is exchanged every few minutes, but to do that it needs to move around the aircraft.  Does the airplane ventilation system spread the virus?

    Mark Feldman: The filters have been installed throughout the plane so the risk is only if you’re sitting next to someone without a mask. Otherwise, your risk from the ventilation system is almost at nil.

    1. Should we wear outer protective clothing when traveling by air?

    Mark Feldman: No, a facemask and gloves are more than sufficient. The concern should be not your seat or tray but the restrooms. You need to be very vigilant of not touching any services without immediately washing your hands.

    Eyal Leshem: No – facemasks are enough.

    6. How dangerous is it to travel by air compared to traveling by bus or train? 

    Mark Feldman: Congestion on buses and trains is still at a far higher number than planes.

    Eyal Leshem: Overall, air travel is not considered substantially riskier than bus or train travel but does confer higher risk than car travel, walking outdoors or cycling. The highest risk during air travel comes from spending time standing in line or seated near (within 6 feet of) potentially ill persons, and touching infected surfaces. Simple actions may help reduce this risk: facemasks, avoid touching your face, handwashing, and eating in an open space or alone in a room.

    7. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of wearing a mask on the airplane if everyone will take them off at the same time to eat the meals on the 15-hour flight?  

    Mark Feldman: First, not everyone is served at the same time; on night flights many people don’t even eat the meal when it’s provided. I would be more cognizant of my nearest neighbor, though, during mealtime.

    Eyal Leshem: It does increase risk, but the duration is important as the dose-response influences overall risk.

    8. Would it be safer to fly in first-class rather than coach, and to spend the extra money to do so?

    Mark Feldman: Yes, and aside from business class, there is a middle class called a premium which consists of only three rows and the middle seat is blocked. If the passenger can afford the extra money it’s a safer way to fly.

    Eyal Leshem: Flying business or first class will reduce line time and close contact, but carries a substantial cost. If you can afford it, the first class is expected to be safer.

    9. Experts say corona is going to be with us for another year or so – is there any time of the year that you think it might be the safest to travel during this time? 

    Mark Feldman: Until there is a vaccine or you can be tested upon arrival, flying is going to be a risk; less for the actual flight or the arriving or departing airport but for the place you are going to.

    Eyal Leshem: Timing is difficult to pick but obviously flu season (December through March) carries higher risk and once a vaccine is available risks may be lower.

    10. Do you think that once we have a vaccine, we will only be allowed to travel to other countries if we have proof that we have had the vaccine? 

    Mark Feldman: Yes, and probably well before that.

    Eyal Leshem: It’s difficult to predict at this time. There are precedents for vaccine requirements like yellow fever for Africa and South America, and smallpox in the past.

    11. If you are flying through a country to get to another one, can you travel without going into quarantine in the country in the middle? 

    Mark Feldman: Yes, transit passengers via Europe, for example, are allowed to switch planes in Europe even though they are not allowed to visit the country unless they have an EU passport.

    Eyal Leshem: This needs to be checked with your individual itinerary.

    12. When do you think it will be safe to fly again? 

    Mark Feldman: When airports and countries have a near-identical protocol. Today, both Greece and Vienna test every single person entering and within two hours the result is given. If positive, they are put in quarantine at the country’s expense.

    Eyal Leshem: In a few years.

    13. Will all passengers be screened for Covid-19 before they get on the plane? How?  

    Mark Feldman: Today, no… hopefully soon.

    14. If I have to fly, what seat on the plane is best?  If you have a long-haul flight, is it better to take two shorter flights than one long one? 

    Mark Feldman: In the economy, an aisle seat in the middle section is the safest as the seat next to you should be blocked. Now it’s true the person across the aisle isn’t 6 feet across, but it’s still the safest seat in economy class.

    Eyal Leshem: Difficult to say, but the least human contact is preferable.

    1. I live in California and my 94-year-old mom lives in Montreal. Haven’t seen her in over a year now and it’s heartbreaking. Even when Canada’s borders reopen, I’m afraid that I could be a carrier of coronavirus and I’m not sure when I can see her. My daughter and I are planning on making aliyah next summer after she finishes high school so we really must see her before we leave. What do you advise? 

    Mark Feldman: Anyone permitted to fly into Canada must do a 14-day quarantine at their expense. Plan your visit so you have enough time for both quarantines and seeing her. New immigrants are allowed into Israel and sent to a hotel for a 14-day quarantine. I strongly believe that by next summer we will have a viable vaccine that has been widely distributed.

    Arriving at your destination

    15. Are there any countries an Israeli citizen can travel to without going into quarantine at this time? 

    Mark Feldman: Several, but the main one is the United States. Israelis can travel to any of the US states without quarantine, except Hawaii and Alaska, which require all travelers to quarantine.

    Eyal Leshem: Yes – but you need to check with country visa/entry requirements.

    16. Will pneumonia vaccinations help prevent corona? 

    Mark Feldman: No

    Eyal Leshem: No

    17. My girlfriend lives in Israel. Am I able to stay with her when I am in quarantine? 

    Mark Feldman: As long as she has a separate room and bathroom for her and if food is delivered to the room. You cannot spend any time in shared spaces.

    Eyal Leshem: Yes, as long as you comply with the Ministry of Health regulations for quarantine.

    18. Can quarantine in Israel be circumvented with a negative test and a doctor’s cover letter?

    Mark Feldman: No.

    Eyal Leshem: No.

    19. What happens if we fly abroad and then get sick with corona? Are we able to fly home? 

    Mark Feldman: No!

    Eyal Leshem: Not before you recover and exit isolation.

    20. How safe is it to stay at a hotel, and how dangerous is the air in a hotel room?  

    Mark Feldman: You need to check each hotel’s cleaning and disinfectant protocol as there is no general rule.

    21. Is there anything that I can do as a guest to make my hotel room safer?

    Mark Feldman: Clean all the areas that you touch yourself; do not rely upon the cleaning staff unless you’re certain of their protocols.

    Eyal Leshem: Open windows.

    22. What are the best hotel chains to stay at during the COVID crisis? 

    Mark Feldman: I think the smaller, family-run chains are more diligent; we’ve had complaints of several hotel chains inside Israel.

    23. My husband and I are both seniors with underlying conditions.  We have tickets with EL AL in August, but due to concern for COVID will not be able to use these tickets. The EL AL office is currently closed. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can best obtain a refund?

    Mark Feldman: Contact your travel agent, who can arrange the refund; otherwise you’ll need to wait. A class-action suit was recently filed in Israel, but it will take months to go through the court system.

    24. I am not a citizen of Israel. I have an apartment in Jerusalem which I left in June to fly to the States. When will I be able to return to Israel?

    Mark Feldman: You’ll need to apply through the Israeli Embassy for a visa.

    About the Author:

    Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.


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