I traveled on Amtrak from Washington DC to New York City and back for the July 4 weekend. The current Amtrak policy on masking is posted on its website:
While Amtrak passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks while on board trains or in stations, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19. Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so.
Based on our experience, and like other modes of travel, this policy is observed mainly in the breach. Very few travelers wore masks in either Union Station or the new Moynihan terminal in New York City. A large majority of travelers on both our Acela trains were likewise maskless.
I do not call attention to this reality to argue for or against masking, but to alert travel advisors to remain vigilant in informing travelers about the realities of travel at this time. COVID-19 has not disappeared. The Center for Disease Control, while reducing the scope of its reporting to weekdays, still showed 169,430 new cases in the United States on July 5.
Given the prevalence of at-home rapid tests, the results of which are often not reported to health authorities regardless of the outcome, the actual number of new cases is likely vastly larger. While the death rate is significantly lower than the last peak level in early February 2022, new hospitalizations bottomed out in early April 2022 and are rising again.
Data on community spread is also available. Clients may investigate this on their own, but travel advisors should assume otherwise.
The World Health Organisation said Tuesday that coronavirus cases have tripled across Europe in the past six weeks, accounting for nearly half of all infections globally. Hospitalization rates have also doubled, although intensive care admissions have remained low.
Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” and led his team to the division title in an extraordinary come-back season. His malapropism is, unfortunately, true of COVID-19. Americans are fed up with COVID-related restrictions even though the threat remains, especially for some especially vulnerable groups. It is therefore particularly important for travel advisors to remain aware, and to communicate, the reality of travel as formal restrictions yield to the desire for “normalcy.” This is true, especially for any clients in those vulnerable groups. Wearing masks and social distancing are “out.”
There is more. On top of the mask/no-mask/vulnerability question, recent developments have added another sensitive touchpoint for travel advisers. Regardless of your beliefs about climate change, the news about the current weather affecting the United Kingdom, among many other globally dispersed destinations is cause for serious concern for many travelers. Among the many articles on the subject, this one well describes the spread and the danger.
Serious threats from high ambient heat can affect even young and healthy persons if they have failed to hydrate and take other precautions. Many travelers may not be aware of their vulnerability or will not take the risk seriously. Even Amtrak is reporting heat-related impacts on train service between New York and Philadelphia.
It seems somewhat crazy, but a related risk is that of wildfires that have sprung up around Europe. For travelers going into the country or into wooded areas, it is entirely appropriate, and probably wisest, for travel advisers to alert them to the dangers. As with earlier days when terrorist threats seemed higher, travelers should have a plan of action in the event unexpected threats arise.
Being alert to the greater risks for some travelers is tricky because it may necessitate addressing circumstances that many people consider highly personal and private. Advisors can, however, inform travelers of essential risk-related information without intruding into private health information. You just want to be sure that the reality of the travel environment is understood. You don’t need to know the specifics of the client’s health situation. Keep a record of what you told each client. Memories, as always, can be short when trouble strikes the unprepared.
Finally, to clear up a common misunderstanding about health information. During the height of the pandemic, it was common to see people making many erroneous claims about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 or HIPAA. You can see a good summary of HIPAA here.
The main point is that HIPAA does not prevent a travel advisor from asking about health information, though for obvious reasons great care should be used when doing so. HIPPA also does not prevent individuals from voluntarily disclosing personal health information if they choose to do it.
The bottom line: disclose the reality of travel conditions as best it can be determined and let the client decide what to do. You don’t have to paint an apocalyptic picture. Just provide relevant information about the circumstances that the traveler should be prepared for given current conditions. Be helpful but not intrusive.