Skift Take

An overwhelming consensus has emerged that Covid-19 doesn't spread as easily outdoors or in well-ventilated areas. So why doesn't the travel industry emphasize that more?

If this destructive virus threw humanity one break, it might just be the fact that it doesn’t spread very easily outdoors.

In a world where so few things feel safe, the simple summer pleasures of a visit to the beach or sitting on a restaurant patio have proved safe enough — especially when people practice social distancing. So it’s curious that this relatively simple, low-cost intervention doesn’t seem to be emphasized in all the public messaging coming from the travel industry.

Over the last few months, editorial staff at Skift have covered much of the cleaning and sanitation guidelines and messaging campaigns coming from various sectors of the industry, and countless companies. Much of the emphasis has been on surface sanitation, hand-washing, mask-wearing, contactless interactions, and the promotion of social distancing. These are all valid public health pursuits and should continue, in keeping with expert advice. However, they don’t account for the increasing consensus that the vast majority of Covid-19 outbreaks or super spreading events are happening in indoor settings.

This emphasis on sanitation is in keeping with the societal response to the virus at large, and represents a disconnect that has been pointed out by others. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic in late July, “it seems baffling that despite mounting evidence of its importance, we are stuck practicing hygiene theater — constantly deep cleaning everything — while not noticing the air we breathe.”

Is It Airborne?

The safe travel guidelines published by the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the U.S. Travel Association don’t mention the role of increased air ventilation (such as through open windows/doors and optimized HVAC systems) or the use of outdoor settings in reducing the spread of the virus. The former does mention that housekeeping staff should wait 15 minutes before entering a room after a guest leaves.

The Safe Travels protocol of the World Travel and Tourism Council doesn’t either, however a more recently released 10-point Traveler Guidance encourages travelers to “stay outdoors, rather than indoors, as much as possible.” One exception was Airbnb, which does include ventilating both guest rooms and common areas as part of its cleaning guides for hosts.

Anecdotally, the vast majority of the health and safety guidelines Skift reporters have seen in recent months have focused on sanitation, and not, say, opening windows between guest stays or encouraging guests to make use of outdoor spaces.

Ventilation is related to a divisive question surrounding Covid-19: how the virus predominately spreads. The World Health Organization has previously said that Covid-19’s primary mode of transmission is via respiratory droplets, larger particles that are emitted when someone coughs or sneezes and then quickly fall to the floor or a surface. Aerosols — which are smaller particles that can remain suspended in the air and circulate longer distances around a room after someone speaks, breathes, or sings — have only recently been acknowledged by the WHO as playing a role. The acknowledgment came after considerable scrutiny from scientists. The agency says it now wants to see more research into the role of so-called aerosol transmission in spreading the virus.

But many experts have argued that’s not enough. Some have said that even though there may not yet be incontrovertible evidence that aerosol transmission is happening, the “precautionary principle” — that is, assuming the absolute worse of a destructive virus until we proved otherwise — warrants framing public health advice around this assumption. Others have argued that situations such as that which occurred on the Diamond Princess cruise ship make a strong case for aerosol transmission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has mentioned the role of ventilation and circulation of outdoor air in various forms of guidance, including cleaning protocols and the reopening of schools. However, its official position on Covid-19’s spread is that it happens primarily via respiratory droplets, not aerosols.

It Won’t Be Summer Forever

One place ventilation has been emphasized more is in the airline sector. The role of HEPA filters in maintaining hospital grade air in the cabin has been amplified by airlines, and a picture is emerging that this method of air filtration perhaps makes airplane cabins safer than other enclosed spaces where opening the windows isn’t an option. (Crucially, that filtration has to continue when the plane is boarding and deplaning on the tarmac, not just when the aircraft is in flight.)

As the pandemic wages on and society adapts, improving and optimizing air filtration and HVAC systems in non-airplane settings will likely become more and more relevant. But it will require a heavy investment and a reversal of years of energy efficiency rules in building codes. Nevertheless, it’s one that labor groups are working on to protect workers who are indoors for long stretches of time, and thus bear a higher risk of exposure.

On the contrary, staying outside, opening windows and doors, and generally limiting the amount of time one spends in poorly ventilated indoor areas with lots of other people is a relatively simple and pain-free mitigation tactic that can happen today. So it is a wonder why staying outdoors as much as possible is not being emphasized more as a way to travel “safely” — especially during the summer months when it’s relatively easy to do so.

That’s especially true since keeping people outdoors appears to be working. New York City has banned indoor dining and managed to keep its cases low while allowing people to dine outside. The move is in keeping with evidence that indoor restaurant settings are being found responsible for outbreaks across the U.S. The New York Times reported that “in Louisiana, roughly a quarter of the state’s 2,360 cases since March that were outside of places like nursing homes and prisons have stemmed from bars and restaurants, according to state data.”

Another compelling indicator of that is that the widespread Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer — during which, it should be noted, the vast majority of participants were masked — did not result in a notable case spikes in cities with large numbers of protestors.

An American Hotel and Lodging Association spokesperson told Skift that its Stay Safe guidelines, which don’t mention ventilation in this context, were created in conjunction with public health experts and reviewed by the CDC: “We are engaging in regular conversations with public health experts and our own Advisory Council and are reviewing the latest information available and exploring our approach in a number of areas, including ventilation and how it impacts guest and employee safety, which remains our top priority.”

The U.S. Travel Association said ventilation is among the issues that may be addressed in a future update to its guidance.

The WTTC pointed to the advice of Ramon Sánchez, principal investigator and research associate at Harvard University, from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has been working with WTTC on its response.

“The public should keep a two metre distance whenever they can, however if that simply isn’t possible, people should increase the ventilation around them,” Sánchez said. “Inside buildings this can be done by opening doors and windows which decreases the viral concentration by more than 70 percent. Mechanical ventilation, such as air conditioning decreases it by 80 percent, while going outdoors proves more effective by decreasing the viral concentration between 90 percent and 95 percent.”

When it comes to making use of the effective intervention of staying outdoors to promote safe travel, it’s worth remembering: Summer won’t last forever.


The Daily Newsletter

Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: coronavirus, covid-19, flights, hotels, u.s. travel association, wttc

Photo credit: Stay outdoors? Shanna Camilleri / Unsplash

Up Next

Loading next stories