Spending the winter in South Carolina, as they usually do, Mainers John and Susan Phipps find themselves adrift in the uncertainty of a pandemic.
They originally planned to drive the 1,200 miles from Myrtle Beach to their home in the tiny Aroostook County town of Dyer Brook in mid-April, but the international struggle to contain coronavirus has them wondering.
Should they stay where they are, or come home? What’s better for them? What’s better for their country?
They’re questions for snowbirds who make a habit of escaping to warmer climates during Maine’s cold, winter months.
The advice from authorities and public health experts is to stay where they are, if possible, said Dr. Attila Hertelendy, a business professor at Florida International University in Miami who has more than 25 years experience in emergency and disaster management.
People should avoid all unnecessary travel, he said.
“That’s rule No. 1,” said Hertelendy, whose organization, Coronavirus Response, recently formed to help governments and social service agencies respond to the virus. “If you have to travel, you should be limiting human contact as much as you possibly can.”
A retired cost accountant who worked at starch factories in Island Falls and Indianapolis, Indiana, John Phipps said he and his wife have stayed in Myrtle Beach for the past five years, from mid-January to mid-April. They find futility in returning ahead of schedule, he said.
“Our family is in Maine,” Phipps said. “But we know if we go home, we aren’t going to spend time with them because we want to do the social distancing thing like we are doing here.”
Travelers should avoid high-risk areas such as New York City, plot precisely where they will stop and check local or state government websites to see what services are available in those areas, Hertelendy said.
Virus restrictions will vary, he said.
“You could be in a situation where you are stuck. You can’t get anything — hotels are shut down,” he said. “That’s a very real risk.”
For now, the Phipps’ plan to stay put, but when they return, they will try to take every precaution.
Usually the trip back takes three or four days, with about a half-dozen stops at restaurants and sight-seeing destinations, and two or three overnight stays in motels. But this year, the Phipps’ will try to make it back in as little time as possible — two days, perhaps, with one motel stop.
They will pack their Subaru Forester with food, water and cleaning supplies. Rubber gloves or paper towels will cover their hands when they refuel the SUV or make bathroom stops. They will practice social distancing and self-quarantine when they get home, John Phipps said.
Travelers should clean anything that they could have personal contact with that touches them or comes into their vehicle. That includes cups and cup-holders, gas pumps and steering wheels, according to Hertelendy.
Personal vehicles are likely the best means of transportation, he said. A crowded plane, train or bus puts passengers at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control urges potential travelers to consider how common infections are at their destination and how they’ll be traveling — chiefly, whether they’ll be in large crowds that allow the coronavirus to more easily transmit — when deciding whether to travel.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advised residents to avoid any nonessential travel, and Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday urged potential visitors trying to escape the coronavirus to stay away from Maine.
“If they believe that they can escape the virus by coming here, they are wrong. It is here, it is everywhere,” Mills said. “They should not be traveling to Maine to take an early vacation.”
The Phipps’ are unsure how long they could afford to stay in South Carolina. They pay, in off-season rates, about $850 a month for a condominium that, during the summer tourist season, rents for $900 a week, John Phipps said.
Their return trips used to be about visiting family, friends or sites along the way, or making good time, but this year, they have only one goal, John Phipps said — making it back virus-free.
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