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Road tripping through a pandemic

In late August, my eldest daughter Kylie and I set off on a nine-state, 12-day, 3,500 mile road trip…no, really…

Why, during the heart of the COVID pandemic would we choose to do this? Because Kylie is a senior in high school this year, and after looking at the calendar and her schedule, we sort of figured this was her only real opportunity to check out some campuses before it was too late. The timing, obviously, wasn't ideal, but it was what it was. We had to figure out how to make it work as safely as possible.

We used our Tesla for this journey, which will be the subject of a near-future post: It was, by far, the longest trip I've ever taken in an electric vehicle.

Although we arrived home in late August, I "quarantined" this post for a couple of weeks, until I was (relatively) certain we'd managed to complete the trip without contracting COVID.

As of today, we've been home for 17 days, and neither of us have shown any symptoms. It appears we successfully avoided COVID on the trip—or if we didn't, then we're both asymptomatic. (I'd wanted us both to get tested when we got back, but as we didn't have symptoms and hadn't been in contact with anyone who knew they had COVID, we weren't eligible.)

And because this post is just a whole bunch of words, I've included a photo from each campus we visited, along with some assorted tour shots, just to make it a bit less dry. (Hover and click to see the uncropped version of any photo.)

All ready to go…well, except for unplugging

This post covers both the steps we took to protect ourselves and others from COVID, and a few thoughts on COVID-related things we observed during the trip.

Minimizing COVID exposure

As we planned the trip, we used three very basic assumptions to guide our decision making: We assumed every person we came into contact with could be infected with the coronavirus. We also assumed that every public surface that we would have to touch could be infected with the virus. Finally, we assumed that we were possibly infected, so we'd do our best to not expose anyone else.

With those assumptions in place, here's how we tackled this road trip…

The student union at Oregon State University

» Pack a well-stocked sanitizing kit

In our kit, we had the following:

  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Paper towels
  • Liquid (foaming) hand soap
  • Roll of toilet paper
  • Small bottles of hand sanitizier
  • Package of plastic gloves

All of this was in a small easy-to-carry bag, so we could take it anywhere with ease.

In addition to the kit, we had a box of 50 disposable masks for outside use, and we each brought a couple of cotton masks as well. We also had spares for the wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.

This kit was used extensively during the trip, as you'll see…

School of Business at the University of Oregon

» Stay outside

As much as possible, this was our number one goal. From what I've read, COVID seems to spread most easily in indoor confined areas with large crowds. So we resolved to stay outside. No building tours on those campuses that would be open. No dining inside a restaurant. Ideally, don't even enter a restaurant. Our goal was to only enter our hotels, and a grocery store at some point to restock our cooler.

Administration building at California State University Chico

For the most part, we did well at this goal; there's more detail below, but I only had to enter three or four restaurants that didn't offer curbside delivery.

» Minimize exposure during campus tours

One thing that made this trip easier to plan was that under half of the schools were planning on having on-campus students this fall, and of those that were, none would be in session yet when we arrived (or so we thought). Only Colorado (two schools), Montana (two), and Idaho (one) had universities that would have students.

View from the student center at the University of California, Davis

Even knowing there weren't students at many of the schools, we set up our route such that we'd typically arrive in a town in the afternoon, spend the night at the hotel, then tour the campus early the next day before heading for the next town. We figured if there were people around, they'd be less likely to be out and about early in the morning. We couldn't always do this—we had a couple days with two visits, and a couple where we had to drive before visiting—but it generally worked well. We saw very few people on any of the campuses ... generally.

The Colorado schools were our first exception: We were arriving during move-in week. But we got to both campuses early in the day, and the number of people was easily managed—we'd occasionally have to alter our course to avoid someone, but it wasn't bad.

Blue skies and white clouds enroute to Reno, Nevada

The first Montana school was going to be more of an issue: We didn't know that the Montana schools had moved their start dates up, so that fall term would conclude at Thanksgiving. That way, the students wouldn't have to travel home and then back to school for another month, only to then travel home again. We didn't figure this out until we were in the midst of the trip—and we were set to visit the first Montana school on a Friday. We just changed our schedule a bit and went to both schools on Saturday—obviously one couldn't be early in the morning, but there weren't too many students around at either school. Whew.

The University of Idaho was also starting in-person classes, but we toured the Sunday morning before classes began, and saw relatively few people out and about.

We were either masked up all the time, or had our masks around our necks ready to pull up if we were going to have to approach anyone. There were no interactions on any of the campuses where I felt we were uncomfortably close to anyone.

The main quad at the surprisingly green urban campus of the University of Nevada, Reno

» Minimize exposure during meal times

For breakfasts, we took whatever the hotel offered—either ordered off a menu or a grab-and-go-bag—back to our room to eat. We'd then use a sanitary wipe from our kit on the wrapped items in our breakfasts, open everything and move it to our own paper plates, and wash our hands before (and after, of course—we're not savages!) eating.

Lunches were easy, as we packed a cooler full of lunch stuff and snacks, as well as a couple bags of dry groceries—bread, chips, crackers, etc. At one of our recharging stops each day, we'd just open the back, make a lunch, and then eat it in the car while charging.

No turns required in Nevada

We made two grocery store stops to restock the cooler; both times, I went super early in the morning when they were pretty much deserted. Ice was restocked in a similar manner, or at gas stations where the ice bags were outside and you could pay without going inside. And, of course, anything we bought was wiped down with a sanitary wipe, and hands were washed before doing anything else after shopping.

When it came to dinners, we knew there was no way we were going to eat inside a restaurant. So we either used a delivery service to the hotel, or a curbside pickup if available, and ate dinner in the hotel room most evenings. (Sometimes we'd eat while recharging.) Dinners were treated like breakfast: All food containers were wiped with sanitary wipes, then disposed of after we moved their contents to our own plates.

The University of Utah had the largest water feature of any campus we visited

Overall, I have very little concern that we could have picked up COVID from any of our meal time activities.

» Choose the right hotels

Wyoming, with a turn visible in the distance

When I booked the hotels for the trip, I looked at each destination city and what choices we had available. Then I went to a number of the possible choices' web pages to find their COVID policies. I decided that we were only going to use big chains, with the hope that they'd have better-developed policies—and more importantly, that those policies would be implemented and followed.

In the end, our trip was split evenly between Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inns. I thought both chains did a great job with their COVID preparations: Masks required inside the hotels, signs near the elevators stating only one or two people per car (if they weren't a related group), lots of plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizer stations, and (with only a couple exceptions) all staff obeying the mask requirements.

Open space and a far-off football stadium at Colorado State University

There was one exception to our chains-only rule: I had originally planned for us to spend a night in Superior, Montana—a very small town. There was really only one hotel in town, and while it may have excellent COVID policies, we don't know that because we wound up skipping the hotel. More details about why this happened in the section about COVID awareness.

As an emergency backup plan, we packed a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads in the Tesla's front trunk—we figured that if any hotel looked too marginal, we'd just find a spot to sleep outside for the night. We probably could have tried the tent in the Superior area, but then we'd have new issues—where to get breakfast, where to find a shower in the morning, etc. Driving to Spokane seemed much simpler.

The Flatirons jut upwards behind the University of Colorado in Boulder

» Be extra paranoid in hotels

On check in, I asked for a room that had been empty for at least 24 hours, and (assuming the clerks weren't lying to me), that was only an issue in one hotel that was relatively full.

Our routine for our hotel room stays made use of our sanitary kit: On arrival, we used a paper towel or sanitizing wipe to open any doors in public spaces. When we got to our room, we wiped down all the hard surfaces with sanitizing wipes. And if we left the room for any reason, we carried a wipe or paper towel, so we wouldn't have to touch door handles, etc.

A smokey-sky early morning at Montana State University

We also used the stairs nearly exclusively, except when we were pretty certain we wouldn't run into anyone else in the elevator area—i.e. early in the morning when we were leaving. (It's ironic—as a parent, my kids grew up with me telling them to always use the hand rail when going up or down stairs. On this trip, hand rails were treated like a "floor is lava!" game, and were never to be touched!)

The one big question that I didn't have a great answer to was what to do about pillows. We packed our own, and used them the first couple nights. But then I realized that the pillow is on the bed, and probably on other surfaces in the room we didn't wipe, so it probably wasn't all that sanitary. We gave that up and just started using the hotel's pillows.

Of all our hotel stays, I only had one event that I'd consider as a possible exposure: I was waiting for the elevator, standing six feet back from the doors. When they opened, two teen girls came out quickly—so quickly I didn't even have a chance to turn or move away—chattering with each other. They walked right past me, and neither was wearing a mask—yikes! They passed quickly, though, so the exposure time was minimal. But it really angered me that they were ignoring the mask requirement and possibly endangering others.

The wide open blue skies of Montana

Other than that one event, I felt our hotel stays were relatively safe—once we got into our room, we'd spend the night there, and not leave until breakfast time.

» Avoid public restrooms

In an ideal world, we would have avoided all public restrooms completely, but being on the road for eight to 12 hours every day made that a no go. So how could we use public restrooms in a safe manner?

We developed a plan, very similar to our hotel plan: Take sanitizing wipes and a couple of paper towels with you, and wipe any surface that you're going to have to touch. When washing your hands, use the paper towel to turn things on and off, and to dry your hands when done—the hot air dryers are germ spreaders, so we stayed away from those. When leaving the bathroom, use the paper towel to open the door, then dispose of the towel and wipes.

Green grass and blue skies at the University of Montana

Beyond that, there was the question of finding non-busy public restrooms, so that you wouldn't have to worry about the cleanliness level, unmasked others in the room, etc. As it turns out, that was mostly a non-issue: In the entire trip, I think we used a stereotypical gas station/truck stop public restroom exactly one time. Why so few? Oddly, I have Tesla to thank for that.

Many of Tesla's Superchargers are located on hotel properties, and these hotels get rent money from Tesla, so we felt perfectly justified using these hotels' restrooms. Our approach was the same (wipes, towels, etc.), but the restrooms were always completely empty and impeccably clean. Chalk that one up as an unexpected benefit of Tesla ownership.

» Minimize risks while meeting with family

Both I and my wife have family in Colorado, and there was no way they were going to let one of their grandkids be in the state without seeing them in some way. We knew this, of course, but set some firm rules, based on the assumption that we were the infected ones: We were not going in anyone's home, we didn't want to do anything indoors anywhere, and there would be no physical contact of any sort, with masks and social distancing enforced.

View of the Student Rec Center down a row of dorms at the University of Idaho

So we visited with my mother-in-law for a couple hours on her outdoor patio, wearing masks. Then we had dinner with my brother and his family, plus my mom and her husband. Dinner was outside on a huge deck, with three different tables that were well more than six feet apart. And once we finished the eating portion of dinner, masks went on.

It was tough not being able to have traditional family greetings with hugs and handshakes, but everyone agreed it was still fun getting to see and talk with each other.

COVID exposure wrap-up

Overall, I felt we did a very good job of minimizing our exposure to COVID, as well as minimizing the possibility that, if we were infected, that we'd pass it on to others. The one incident with the elevator is the only point in the entire 12 day trip that I can say made me truly uncomfortable. (There were other times we saw unmasked people, but we were always able to steer well clear of them.)

Ultra-modern College of Veterinary Science at Washington State University

My hat's off to both Comfort Inns and Holiday Inn Express; I feel both did an excellent job at making us feel comfortable with the effort they were putting in to minimize COVID risks.

And I guess the proof is in our apparent COVID-free status a full two weeks after the end of the trip.

Observations on COVID awareness

This was an interesting trip, in that we visited so many states in such a brief amount of time. Our route was primarily interstates with stops in cities ranging in size from small to huge. Overall, we found that mask wearing was common (though more common in the larger cities), people generally tried to respect social distancing, and that most places had restrictions of some form or another on inside activities. Not all states have a mask mandate, though.

Taken through the opposite side window at 80mph; amazed at the result

On the campuses, as there were generally very few people and we were outside, we felt completely comfortable. (We didn't enter any buildings at any of the schools.) Things got more interesting when we had to head to the hotel and figure out the dinner plan. We had no concerns in most of the places we stopped, so I'll just focus on the places that Kylie and I discussed as "interesting."

» Colorado campuses

With Colorado schools starting up, the two campuses we toured were clearly prepared for students, with lots of information on COVID policies on signage (and on their web sites). Still, as we watched the students moving into the dorms, it was hard to see how this can possibly work out—there are so many students, and students are going to socialize in groups, and often indoors. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, not just in Colorado, but in any state whose universities are opening for on-campus instruction.

One of the Tesla Superchargers had dozens of these furry beasts roaming around

» Sheridan, Wyoming

We went to order a dinner-to-go at a restaurant in Sheridan, and when we arrived, it was quite busy. Looking in from the outside, the tables were spaced for social distancing, but the available tables were mostly full. There were also about 10 people in line, and all but one was maskless. (Wyoming doesn't presently require masks for the public, just for staff interacting with the public.) There was no social distancing in the ordering line, with people standing pretty much shoulder to shoulder.

Needless to say, I didn't go in. Instead, we sat in the car, ordered online from the same restaurant, and then used curbside pickup. (The employee who delivered the food was wearing a mask and gloves).

» Superior, Montana

Our original plan had us spending the night in Superior, which is a small town about 60 miles west-ish of Missoula on I-90. It was the only non-chain motel on our trip, as it's the only hotel in Superior. Before we went to check in, we stopped at the Tesla Supercharger, which is behind the only gas station in town.

John Day Dam along the Columbia River

As we charged, we saw people arriving and greeting friends with nary a concern for social distancing or masks. Kylie and I talked it over, and we decided that we weren't comfortable staying the night—both for our health's sake, and for that of any unmasked people we might encounter if we had picked up the virus during the first week of our travels.

We chose to continue on to Spokane, which was actually a bit off our intended route (we were originally set to head south from Couer d'Alene), but they had a Holiday Inn Express with a good rate, and a nearby Supercharger. This turned what was to have been a relatively short driving day into our second longest (446 miles) driving day. But both Kylie and I felt it was the right decision, given what we'd seen in Superior.

Wrapping it all up

As we toured the west, we were impressed by the number of people wearing masks (even in states where it wasn't required), the changes made at hotels and restaurants to safely serve customers during the pandemic, and the pleasant attitude of the workers we interacted with during our travels. I know we had more exposure during the trip than we would if we stayed at home, but we tried to minimize those risks as much as practical.

Railroad bridge over the Columbia River

I'm not sure I'd recommend doing what we just did, but if you do have to undertake such a trip during the pandemic, plan and prepare as much as possible, and be ready to modify your plans based on what you see while you're traveling. Maskl up, and stay safe out there!

11 Comments

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    1. Not a waste of energy if it allowed my daughter and I to sleep soundly each evening. To each his/her own, and we both preferred taking as much care as possible to not get sick—or get anyone else sick.

      -rob.

  1. Are you still as concerned with hotels/motels? My sense is that contact transmission is negligible.

    So far it seems closed spaces are the issue. Although no reports that I've seen on problems with airline travel. Although they reportedly have frequent air changes.

    Planning a road trip for October.

    1. When we left, our understanding was basically the same as yours: Airborne transmission, especially indoors with lots of people in tight spaces is definitely the worst. But our reading also showed that contact transmission was possible, though nobody seemed to know how likely.

      It takes only a minute to wipe down surfaces, though, so we both felt that was time well spent for peace of mind.

      -rob.

      1. Are you aware of the following facts (objective and unpoliticized)?

        In countries like Canada and Italy (as examples), between 82% and 96% of deaths occurred in long-term care facilities (out countries too). In the US, it is lower, but mainly because many of the cases were transferred to hospital before they died so the numbers are not attributed back to the care facilities. This means only a minority of cases died outside those facilities.
        According to the most recent report from the CDC, only 6% of all deaths were recorded as only due to COVID but 94% of all deaths occurred with comorbidities, in other words, the risk of death is highest due to pre-existing conditions like heart and lung conditions, diabetes and obesity being the biggest contributors. It is also stated that many of the 6% may only have COVID recorded because they do not have complete documentation.
        The average age of death from COVID is over 80.
        up to 62,000 people died in the US from H1N1 (aka the Swine Flu from 2010 that was also declared a pandemic but only killed about 12,500 back then), the current strain of flu virus that has killed about 5 times as many THIS YEAR.
        The number of deaths due to COVID among those under 65 (in the same age categories as both of you) is LOWER than the number of deaths from the common flu this year (mostly H1N1) and other years. This makes the risk of dying from COVID in this large age group far less than the flu, and as it turns out, also far less than dying in a car accident.

        Although it is not mentioned enough, transmission of this W/C-Virus is very similar to and not much different than any flu or other coronavirus every year (aerosol, prolonged exposure, surface contacts, etc). So at this point why is the concern so much greater?

        And should you not be just as concerned about driving, since the risk is actually higher? If not, why not?

        Do you also take the same level of precautions and carry on with the same level of concern every year for the common flu? If so, at least you are consistent. If not, why not? And if not, should that not give you pause to think why the behaviour is different?

        Just thought I'd share some thoughts.

        1. I take extra precautions because I'd rather be safe than find out I'm one of the unlucky ones who gets a bad case and dies of something that could have been prevented.

          My age (56) is approaching the end of the "no problem don't worry!" zone. I may have comorbidities that I'm not fully aware of, beyond being somewhat overweight. There's no vaccine or known treatment that's 100% effective if you do catch COVID-19. The flu has both a vaccine and effective treatments.

          There is also much unknown about the coronavirus' long term effects, even among those who are asymptomatic—many have reported having headaches and/or dizziness and/or breathing issues for months, and that are still ongoing and not treatable. I don't want to deal with that.

          There are also unknown effects on the heart among otherwise young and healthy patients.

          Take all of that together, and I think it's more than reason enough to be as protective as I can.

          I get a flu shot every year, and I'll get a coronavirus shot if/when they become available. Until that time, though, I'll take protections to keep myself and my family safe…but almost as importantly, to help keep others who may be at risk safe in case I do have it without having symptoms.

          As for driving, we do as much as possible to lower the risk. We did all our driving during the day (night driving is notably more dangerous). We drove 95% of the trip only on interstates, which are much safer than non-divided highways. We used Tesla's Autopilot often, to help us maintain a safe speed and stay in our lane (Tesla's data shows drivers using Autopilot are substantially safer than those who are not using it.) We had new tires installed just a few months ago. We shared the driving, and the person non-driving wasn't playing games or reading, they were helping watch the road.

          Once the full effects of COVID-19 are known, once there's a treatment that's proven effective for everyone, and once there's a vaccine, then I'll probably relax my standards. Until then, I have no problem being overly defensive to protect the health of me, my family, and those we come in contact with.

          -rob.

    1. She's still mulling things over, but I think it'll probably be three to five—two for sure so far.

      -rob.

      1. If she's looking at a Veterinary school, I'd also recommend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. That's where my daughter goes. Covid rate for the area is very low (so far).

        1. That school was actually on our list, but driving down there would've added two full days to the trip, so we ruled it out. She may still apply there, though (probably not for vet school, though).

          -rob.

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