Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.
My niece’s wedding in New Orleans is this month. We would fly from Austin, rent a car and stay at a hotel. There will be about 50 people at the wedding, mostly from New Orleans, Memphis and South Florida. The wedding venue is outdoors; the rehearsal dinner is not. Most likely very few people will wear masks. We gathered there as a family in June for my father’s funeral, but right now feels riskier. Should we go? — Barbara, Austin
Your gut feeling is correct; it is risky to be traveling. Add a large gathering into that mix and it is exceptionally risky for yourself and others. Coronavirus hospitalizations are going up across the country, including in your home state of Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people not to travel during this surge, but millions are still traveling this holiday season.
Because your trip is to New Orleans, I took your question to local New Orleans health experts, including Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
“My epidemiologist self will say, no, they shouldn’t come to a big gathering,” Hassig told me right out of the gate. “It is really not a good idea at this point in time to be gathering with people from multiple parts of the country, especially if one is older.”
Throughout the pandemic, weddings have been linked to multiple headline-making outbreaks. The most infamous of them was similar in size to the wedding you are considering attending. Back in early August, this 65-person wedding in rural Maine spawned a cluster of coronavirus infections responsible for seven deaths.
Hassig says she is more concerned about the peripheral wedding activities, like the potentially indoor rehearsal dinner or reception where people would be eating and drinking. Even with New Orleans’s mask mandate, being in close contact with other wedding guests is particularly risky as you won’t know the health status of the other guests.
“You’ll have your masks off when you’re eating, talking, laughing, probably hugging, getting seated probably closer than you should be seated in that kind of an environment,” she says.
Then there are the risks of traveling to and from the wedding, which can be found at every leg of the journey — from flying and driving to rest stops and hotels.
Sarah Babcock, New Orleans Health Department’s director of health policy, says the biggest complaint locals have about pandemic travelers is that many don’t follow coronavirus precautions. You mentioned in your question that few people will wear masks, but they are required at gatherings in the city.
“There’s a lot of complaints about [tourists] not wearing their mask when they’re out in the street or when they’re visiting places when they’re trying to enjoy live music,” Babcock says. “We want you to come and we want you to do those things, but we need you to take this seriously and be safe and use all the same precautions that we are doing here locally.”
However, there’s a chance you might not have to worry about the wedding at all; it may be canceled. If New Orleans case numbers continue to rise, and the city reaches a 5 percent positivity rate, new restrictions will go into effect, including a wedding capacity reduction.
“[New Orleans has] one of the best situations in the state, one of just a very small number of parishes that has test positivity right now below five percent,” Hassig says. “But we’re still in a situation where the virus is here. So it’s one of those double-edged swords as we really would like people to come, but we also don’t want you to behave in a way that’s going to mess us up either.”
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