Though many Americans are still under local shelter-in-place orders to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, some states have started taking steps to reopen businesses. And, as millions of people return to worksites, lots will undoubtedly rely on public transit to get there.
If you're among them, you probably have concerns about how to avoid picking up germs on your route.
Whether you'll need to take public transportation soon or just want to be prepared for the future, we've got you covered. Here, experts share 11 strategies for lowering your risk of catching (or spreading) COVID-19 and staying safe on your commute.
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1. Pay Before You Ride
If you must travel by train or bus, use transport that has contactless payment, says David Freedman, MD, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Through contactless payment like tap-and-go cards or pay-in-advance methods via smartphone apps, you can purchase your ride quickly and avoid contact with station agents and drivers to potentially reduce transmission of the virus.
In fact, some public transportation authorities have begun to institute these best practices to encourage social distancing and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
For example, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), a public transit operator serving Southeast Michigan, has stopped the collection of fares on all services, according to agency spokesperson Beth Gibbons.
2. Stick to Social Distancing
Though it may be challenging aboard a bus or train, do your best to practice social distancing to the greatest extent, Dr. Freedman says. And not only during the ride, but especially while waiting on platforms or at bus stops and entering and exiting the vehicle or station.
"These doors are choke points," Dr. Freedman says, meaning that they can become easily crowded, congested or blocked with hoards of commuters in a hurry. The last thing you want is to be elbow to elbow with someone who may be infected.
That's why it's essential to maintain at least six feet of distance at all times, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
Indeed, a May 2020 study published in Health Affairs found that places without social distancing exhibited 35 times greater the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
3. Use the Rear Exit
One simple way to safely socially distance is to avoid interactions with bus drivers by exiting or entering the vehicle through the rear doors. Drivers, who encounter commuters all day, are still the most likely individuals on the vehicle to be infected, according to Dr. Freedman, who recommends following the six-feet-apart rule with bus (and train) operators at all times.
Accordingly, in Michigan, SMART is requiring rear boarding and de-boarding except for riders with special needs or disabilities, says Gibbons.
And, to prevent transit operators from becoming ill, many public transportation agencies like SMART have begun to provide daily health screenings, as well as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to keep their employees safe, Gibbons says.
But minimizing your contact with drivers is still key for your health and theirs.
Keep in mind, the more transit workers that become infected, the fewer are available to operate public transportation. This means fewer buses and trains to transport the same number of riders (think: a more crowded commute). And when this happens, you'll have a greater risk for catching or spreading COVID-19.
4. Wear a Mask
Whenever you're out and about on public transit, wear a mask and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, Elizabeth Scott, PhD, associate dean and professor of biology at Simmons University and an expert in home and community hygiene, tells LIVESTRONG.com. She also recommends sporting glasses or goggles to reduce the impulse to touch your peepers. By doing so, you help lower your risk of the virus reaching them via droplets and aerosols.
That's exactly why some public transit authorities are requiring riders to cover their faces when traveling. SMART not only obliges commuters to wear face coverings, but their drivers too, says Gibbons.
Still, using a mask doesn't substitute for social distancing. Rather, it offers another layer of protection and helps you avoid unintentionally spreading the virus to other commuters, especially if you're pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.
5. Stay Put
With the exception of moving to a new seat to avoid someone who's clearly sick or not wearing a mask, Dr. Freedman says you should aim to stay in one place during your ride to minimize the contact you have with people.
This goes back to the idea of social distancing. The fewer encounters you have with potentially ill individuals, the better.
And it goes both ways. If you're a COVID-19 carrier and you don't know it, you don't want to be accidentally shedding the virus all over the subway or train. As a matter of fact, an April 2020 study published in Nature Medicine estimated that 44 percent of infections occur due to pre-symptomatic people, aka those who have yet to show symptoms.
"It's a good idea to avoid public transport if possible and allow people who have no other choice to commute more safely."
6. Slather on the Hand Sanitizer
Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after riding on a train or bus sounds like a no-brainer. But did you know that you should also squirt some sanitizer into your hands as soon as you get on public trans too?
"This way, you reduce the risk of both contaminating surfaces as well as picking up contamination," Scott says.
Remember, we must all take responsibility for staying safe and stopping the spread of this deadly virus among our communities. That means doing what's necessary to prevent others from picking up your germs.
This is especially essential if you're infected with COVID-19 but don't exhibit any signs. In fact, it can take anywhere from five days to two weeks for your symptoms to develop, according to a May 2020 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In the meantime, as the virus incubates, you can be inadvertently passing on your pathogens to other people on public transit. Even asymptomatic individuals who never exhibit indicators of illness may still spread the coronavirus.
OK, but what should you do if you don't have hand sanitizer? (We know, it's still tough to find in stores and online.) Try to touch as few things as possible during your commute, wear disposable gloves if you have them and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as soon as you can.
7. Don’t Touch Anything
Whether you have hand sanitizer or not, steering clear of surfaces on the subway or train is a safe strategy in general. That's because the novel coronavirus may last on various surfaces anywhere from a few hours to several days, per the CDC.
"If possible, don't touch anything, including the seat itself," says Dr. Freedman, who suggests straphangers hold onto poles or railings using disinfectant wipes. You could also use a tissue or paper towel, then throw it out (without touching the side that touched the pole!) as soon as you leave the train.
That said, many public transit agencies are also doing their part to reduce COVID-19 transmission by disinfecting their vehicles daily.
In Michigan, SMART has stepped up their cleaning and sanitizing of buses and facilities with electrostatic micro-bacterial spray treatments as well as employing extra cleaning crews for more midday sanitization, according to Gibbons.
8. Pick Off-Peak Hours
If you have some leeway in your schedule, try to avoid riding on public transportation during peak hours, Scott says. By tweaking your travel hours, you can dodge the times when trains and buses are busiest.
And whenever possible, steer clear of subway and bus routes that run through current coronavirus hotspots, Dr. Freedman suggests. "Many states are publishing district-by-district infection statistics," so you can make smarter decisions about how you commute, he says.
It might be worth walking a little farther to another station if it's situated in a part of town with lower infection rates or tends to be less congested.
Many public transit authorities are also making strategic changes to keep riders safer during rush hour. For example, SMART is monitoring ridership and will increase service during higher-demand hours to help to prevent bus overcrowding, Gibbons says.
That said, never cram yourself into a crowded vehicle and always give yourself extra travel time in case you need to wait for a less-packed train or bus.
9. Avoid Conversations
While it's always important to be considerate and courteous with your fellow commuters, your daily travel should be no time for small talk. "Don't let a stranger (or anyone really) engage you in conversation," Dr. Freedman says.
That's because COVID-19 can be spread through respiratory droplets not only when a sick person coughs or sneezes but simply when they talk, per the CDC. And, since infected individuals may not show symptoms, it's hard to tell who's carrying the coronavirus in the first place.
In fact, small respiratory droplets produced by regular speech can linger in the air for at least eight minutes, according to a May 2020 study published in PNAS. These findings appear to show that normal speaking can easily transmit the coronavirus, especially in confined environments with poor air circulation like trains and buses.
10. Nix the Noshing
On a busy day, you might use your commute time to sneak in a snack. But in the age of the novel coronavirus pandemic, eating on-the-move isn't a smart idea, according to Dr. Freedman.
For one thing, you must remove your mask to have a quick bite. Again, a face covering not only helps to protect you from pesky pathogens, but also keeps your germs from flying freely into the air and infecting other passengers.
Plus, odds are, no matter how diligent you are about keeping your hands to yourself, you've probably touched a soiled surface at some point during your ride.
Though there's no evidence you can catch coronavirus from contaminated food, it's still not advisable to put your hands near your mouth in public. That's because, sans mask, you're likely to touch your face, too, and if you have any microbes on your mitts, they can make their way into other entry points of infection, including your nose and eyes.
The same rule goes for drinks too, Scott says. Leave your water bottle in your bag — otherwise the germs you picked up on public transit may hitch a ride and infect you later.
11. Use Another Mode of Transportation
If you have another way to travel, use it. "I think it's a good idea to avoid public transport if possible and allow people who have no other choice to commute more safely," Scott says.
The thing is, the virus is still present in our communities, so taking public transit, where you will encounter lots of people, puts you and others at risk for catching COVID-19.
"Infection prevention is a shared responsibility," says Scott. In other words, we must all do our part to stay safe and protect others. That means if commuting by train or bus isn't absolutely essential, don't do it.
Whenever possible, walk or bike to work (but if you are using a bike-sharing service, wipe down the seat and handlebars with a disinfectant and use hand sanitizer before and after). Not only will you lower your risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus, but you'll also log some hours of heart-healthy exercise and possibly improve your mental health.
In fact, walkers who stroll through green spaces on their way to the office can reduce stress and boost their mood, according to a December 2018 study in Environment International. What's more, cyclists who commute to work have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, per an April 2017 study in the BMJ.
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- BMJ: “Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study.”
- Environment International: “Active Commuting Through Natural Environments Is Associated With Better Mental Health: Results From the PHENOTYPE Project.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How COVID-19 Spreads.”
- Health Affairs: “Strong Social Distancing Measures In The United States Reduced The COVID-19 Growth Rate.”
- Annals of Internal Medicine: “The Incubation Period of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) From Publicly Reported Confirmed Cases: Estimation and Application.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Cleaning and Disinfection for Households.”
- PNAS: “The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
- Nature Medicine: “Temporal dynamics in viral shedding and transmissibility of COVID-19.”