The U.S. Travel Association, eager to relieve consumers’ fears as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, submitted to the White House and state governors on Monday a 15-page report outlining health and safety guidelines for a cautious reopening of the travel industry.
The document, called “Travel in the New Normal,” was a collaborative effort with medical and infectious disease experts. It does not offer any timeline but presents a layered approach to restore travelers’ confidence by showing that all sectors of the business are adapting consistent best practices going forward.
Hotels, airports, airlines, attractions, restaurants, car rentals, meeting venues, travel advisers, cruise lines and vacation rental companies are among the segments of the $2.6 trillion industry that are addressed.
“We are preparing for when the public health officials and government say it’s OK to travel again,” U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow said on a conference call. “The health and safety of our employees and customers comes first. Also, we want to make sure we are fully ready when the time is right, to help power the economic recovery that only travel can do, and get people back to work...The most important thing for travel is that we start out safely, even if we start a little bit slowly.”
The travel industry has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus crisis with an estimated loss of eight million jobs — accounting for about one-third of the total job losses in America. An Oxford Economics study projected the COVID-19 impact on the travel industry to be nine times worse than 9/11.
After 9/11, the travel industry shifted its attention to security and travelers became accustomed to stricter airport screenings. Now, there will be a strong focus on health and reducing the spread of infection.
“We will not encourage people to travel until public health experts and authorities have made it clear that it’s the right time to do so,” Dow said. “Our industry’s focus is on preparing for that moment, and on demonstrating that our preparations are comprehensive and informed by the counsel of top experts.
“The ability to travel freely is not only a fundamental part of the American way of life but also supports the livelihoods of millions. We are very determined to return to travel and the new normal as quickly as circumstances will allow.”
Among the recommendations:
- Modify public areas to keep employees and customers safe, including broad hand washing and sanitizing, personal protection equipment, physical barriers such as transparent screens between customers and employees, and using on-line ordering and curbside pickup.
- Implement touchless solutions, when possible, such as online ticketing, touchless ID check, and virtual check-in.
- Enhance sanitation procedures specifically designed to combat the transmission of COVID-19.
- Promote health screening measures for employees and isolate workers with possible COVID-19 symptoms.
The guidelines are meant to help the industry reopen as safely as possible, but some of the responsibility falls on each individual, said Dr. Michael Parkinson, the past president of the American College of Preventive Medicine and a key adviser to the U.S. Travel Association in creating the guidelines.
“The fact of the matter is, this is a highly infectious and transmissible agent, we’re learning more about the transmission and its likely greater severity than other agents like the flu,” said Parkinson. “If you are a vulnerable individual defined as elderly or those with serious underlying health conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, immune-compromised, you should not be considering non-essential travel. You should stay at home.”
Carnival Cruises to sail Aug. 1
Carnival Cruise Lines announced on Monday that it will resume limited sailing on Aug. 1. Asked if he thought that was too soon, Dow said: “I know that Carnival has looked at this very carefully and they set schedules and if they don’t feel that there’s great confidence at that time, they’ll reschedule. But they’re putting phenomenal procedures in place on top of the great procedures they already have and they believe the August time frame makes sense.”
Dow pointed out that the cruise industry bookings for 2021 are “very strong.”
Dow, a resident of St. Petersburg, is encouraged by what he has seen in the first few days since most of Florida reopened its beaches and other businesses.
“Florida has among the lowest incidents and living in Florida, I have watched it very, very carefully,” he said. “People were obeying the physical distancing guidelines. People are coming back quite responsibly. I felt very good with the way the governor has handled it in Florida.”
He added that the Florida sunshine has been used as therapy for illness back to the days of the Spanish Flu, when infected people traveled to St. Petersburg beaches and pitched tents. “If the beaches reopen responsibly and people follow the guidelines, it is good. There will be a time when someone has to come over on a beach and say, `You’re a little close.’ But we’re finding Americans are taking this to heart and behaving responsibly.”
What about Disney World?
Asked about the plausibility of Disney World and other large theme parks reopening, Dow said: “We were very engaged with Disney and other theme parks on putting this together. Disney is putting together some protocols and doing a tremendous job of addressing it with their cast members and guests. So, I see Disney evolve in a very positive, smart way.”
U.S. Travel Association research found that leisure travel will return first with driving trips and short, regional flights; then business travel will follow, and then larger conventions and international travel.
Despite varying projections of U.S. cases and deaths, Dow and Parkinson are confident in their plan, which falls in line with the three-phased White House “Opening Up America Again” approach.
“States and counties are interpreting it a little bit differently, and the question is, can we move as a country to a little greater consensus about when the metrics suggest that, on average, you’re relatively past the gating criteria,” Parkinson said. “It’s a work in progress. Science is changing. The numbers are changing, but in the midst of this, making sure we can ensure responsible travel. Again, this is an infection that by and large hits the elderly and those with chronic conditions. Those folks should definitely not do Phase I or Phase II or get near an aircraft. Non-essential travel doesn’t happen until Phase III.”
The layered approach and the timing based on geography is important, Dow and Parkinson said, because the United States is such a diverse country. “The national numbers are always misleading, because they’re averages,” Parkinson said. “What’s happening in New York City vs. Denver is very different in terms of the rates, how long the virus was in that climate, etc..so all the industry should be informed of that going forward.”
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