What we know (and don't know) about Northeast COVID-19 travel quarantine effectiveness
Air travel is declining in some Northeast states that required quarantines for travelers from other parts of the U.S. ravaged by recent COVID-19 surges, suggesting the directives are helping limit coronavirus risks, new data show.
In fact, several Northeast states had the biggest reductions nationally in flights in July compared to last year, according to Airlines for America industry data provided to the USA TODAY Network.
New York’s scheduled departures declined nearly 69%, the largest drop in the country. It was followed closely by New Jersey, down 67%, and Rhode Island, down 61%. The national average was down about 50%.
Metrics for bookings for future domestic flights were also down significantly across the country in recent weeks, meaning further declines lay ahead, the data show.
But the threat of motorists transporting the virus on American roadways remains unclear, endangering efforts in Northeast states desperately seeking to sustain low COVID-19 infection rates while the pandemic worsens across the country.
Meanwhile, travelers from 34 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico now have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering New York, New Jersey and Connecticut after more states were added to the regional quarantine list Tuesday.
Yet reports of out-of-state travelers attending summer gatherings in the Northeast and fueling new COVID-19 hot spots underscored the challenges of enforcing the quarantines.
“If you have the virus going up in other parts of the country, it's almost inevitable that it will have an effect,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.
So far, travel quarantines and other public health measures are working to limit the virus’ spread in New York, Cuomo added, noting it “won’t be out of the woods totally on COVID until COVID is contained all across the country, if not globally.”
What experts say about Northeast COVID-19 travel quarantines
Public health experts, however, expressed dire concerns that travel-related outbreaks could undo the Northeast’s odyssey from pandemic epicenter this spring to the country’s last bastion against COVID-19.
“No matter what we do there is no perfect way we’re going to capture everybody who moves back and forth to the Northeast,” said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, of the Resolve to Save Lives public health initiative.
“Since you know that you can’t control it fully, you have to be ready to respond,” he added, addressing the importance of improving COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing programs to contain outbreaks.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, described the prospect of many travelers strictly quarantining upon arrival in the Northeast as unrealistic, citing unchecked road travel and states’ limited enforcement capacity.
Instead, the state-level travel restrictions may prove most effective in discouraging some interstate travel during the pandemic, he said.
“People traveling to places like Texas and California have brought back the virus” to the Northeast, Adalja said, adding the quarantine list “serves as notice that these places are not the safest places to go.”
How COVID-19, quarantines impacted air travel
The scope of COVID-19 travel reluctance is reflected in airline industry data, which revealed historic declines in air travel demand amid the peak of stay-at-home orders issued this spring.
“At its lowest point in late April, passenger volumes were down 96% to a level not seen since before the dawn of the jet age (in the 1950s),” said Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for the industry group.
Then in May, some states pushed broad re-openings and air travel bookings slowly ticked up again before stalling in mid-June as spikes in COVID-19 cases ramped up nationally.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut imposed regional travel restrictions on June 24, and other Northeast states have imposed similar travel restrictions.
But the approach to enforcement of travel quarantine orders has varied widely among states.
For example, New York required air travelers to fill out questionnaires or face a fine of up to $2,000. New Jersey expected air travelers to voluntarily fill out a similar form, and Connecticut’s policy included a $1,000 fine for quarantine violations.
So far, New York’s Department of Health has collected more than 102,000 paper questionnaire forms from air travelers, along with nearly 52,000 digitally filed forms, said Jill Montag, an agency spokeswoman. She declined to provide information about whether fines have been issued.
In contrast, the travel quarantine policy in New Jersey essentially works on the honor system.
"It is relying on personal accountability. Individuals should leave the place of quarantine only to seek medical care treatment or to obtain food and other essential items," Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said July 17.
"It is vital that individuals traveling from heavily impacted states cooperate, so we can avoid creating community outbreaks in our state," she added.
In response to questions about quarantine enforcement, New Jersey’s Department of Health noted local health officials conduct investigations of positive COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.
“The (Health) Department hasn’t received reports of any outbreaks related to individuals who traveled from states on the quarantine list” since the order took effect, agency spokesperson Dawn Thomas wrote in an email.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf said travelers will be expected to voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state.
"That’s up to each individual…you owe it to yourself, to your family, to your loved ones, to your co-workers, to self-quarantine," Wolf said.
Airline industry data, however, suggested New York’s more forceful approach has proven uniquely effective in discouraging air travel.
Since the June 24 quarantine order, travel agency bookings for domestic flights in New York were trending downward more steadily than other states, the data show.
As of July 21, New York’s airline bookings metric was down 88% compared to last year at this time. New Jersey was down 78%, and the rest of the U.S. was down 74%, the data show.
“As the nation is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, bookings for future travel are once again declining as states implement new travel restrictions and revisit plans to reopen,” Estep said.
“As a result, data reveals that among all U.S. states and territories, New York has seen the largest reduction in flights,” she said.
But New York, which includes some of the historically busiest airports in the world, is still seeing more total flights scheduled than New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the industry data show.
For example, New York had 3,224 scheduled passenger flights between Wednesday and Aug. 4, including about 2,700 domestic flights, the data show.
New Jersey had 1,506 passenger flights scheduled during the same seven-day period, and Connecticut and Rhode Island had 301 and 166 passenger flights scheduled, respectively.
But determining the full impact of the travel quarantines remains difficult because the airline industry statistics don't reflect cancellations.
The most recent federal data is from May, when U.S. airlines carried 89% fewer scheduled service passengers than in May 2019, according to data filed with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
What we know about COVID-19 and interstate motorists
On June 25, AAA forecasted Americans would take 700 million trips this summer, including 683 million car trips, based on economic indicators and states’ re-opening plans.
But then COVID-19 cases kept rising nationally. And many states paused or reversed re-openings, raising questions about the accuracy of the national group’s traditional methods for tracking and predicting travel on American roadways.
“So much of what we analyze has to do with economic data, household net worth, disposable income, unemployment figures, all those things play into it,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., the AAA Northeast spokesman.
“With these numbers just skewed with all that’s going on, it just didn’t make sense to do it,” he said, adding AAA plans to conduct travel projection surveys and research for holidays such as July 4th and Labor Day were scrapped.
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Further, many Americans were delaying travel plans until the last minute possible due to the uncertainty, typically making the decision between two and seven days prior to the trip, AAA surveys found.
Yet some telltale signs of reduced travel on American roadways exist, such as lower demand for gasoline helping to drive down prices to levels last seen following the 2008 financial crisis, Sinclair said.
But it seems the countless unknowns during the pandemic make predicting how American travel habits will shift in coming weeks nearly impossible.
“Only a person with a crystal ball can answer that question,” Sinclair said.
Meanwhile, state and local health officials in New York have vowed to keep trying to ensure out-of-state motorists follow quarantine rules, which can carry fines of up to $10,000 for repeat violations.
“If the state or local health department is made aware of a motorist arriving, they will be contacted to ensure compliance,” Montag said.
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