A lot of Americans still don’t understand this virus. Especially the Americans you find in roadside convenience stores. Almost every convenience store attached to a gas station has a sign that says “Mask required,” yet almost nobody inside is wearing one.
That was my family’s main takeaway from our first road trip during coronavirus. On June 18, nine days after New Jersey’s stay-at-home order was lifted and 105 days after we had begun quarantining in March, Tim and the kids and I had to make a road trip to Atlanta (an essential trip for urgent family reasons). We planned to stay in a bubble except for the time on the highway when we would need to leave the car. We did the full 14-hour drive in one day, leaving at 4 a.m. to avoid rush-hour traffic in as many cities as possible en route. We took I-78 to I-81 to I-77 to I-85 (a relatively rural and low-traffic route that we’ve driven many times). We did the same thing heading back north on June 23, again leaving at 4 a.m.
The farther south we went, the more traffic was on the roads, and the fewer people wore masks. Indeed, the main danger on our road trip, we discovered, was other people. Not only are a lot of people in roadside convenience stores not wearing masks, but they are not staying six feet apart. They brush past you in doorways, in the aisles, at the cash register. And the store managers don’t seem to care. We never saw any mask-wearing requirement enforced. In fact, some store workers didn’t wear masks either, and almost none wore gloves. Coming from New Jersey, where we live in a responsible community (a New York City suburb) that succeeded in flattening the curve and drastically lowering our infection rate (note the NJ graph here), the rules to follow to avoid spreading the virus have become second nature to us. Tim was in Manhattan for doctor visits two days before our trip, and everybody he saw wore a mask. We’ve grown accustomed to conducting all transactions in a touchless manner. So imagine my surprise when ungloved convenience-store employees took my credit card with their fingers. (I used a lot of disinfectant wipes on my card during this trip.)
In every state, gas was amazingly cheap—usually $1.75 a gallon. In a past life, we would fill up at gas stations and, while there, use the bathroom and buy food. Those days are gone. On road trips today, the acts of getting gas, using a bathroom, and buying food need to happen at three different places.
Based on our experience, here are my five biggest pieces of advice if you’re headed out on a road trip soon:
1. Use the restrooms in state welcome centers.
They’re relatively empty, spacious, and clean, and a relatively touchless experience from start to finish, with few, if any, door handles. Do not use the restrooms in the stores attached to gas stations: It will mean navigating door handles or knobs and people who may brush against you in narrow corridors and stand next to you because there aren’t enough sinks to space yourselves out.
2. Choose hotels where rooms have private entrances and windows that open to let in fresh air.
You can look for motels where each room has a separate entrance onto the parking lot, but such rooms may not have windows that open. Your best bet may be older hotels that have either freestanding cottages or rooms with balconies where you can leave the balcony door open, letting in fresh air throughout the night. Look in areas where you might find historic inns or sprawling old-fashioned resorts with individual bungalows. Because we were driving with our dog, and the only pet-friendly rooms I could find along our route with the aforementioned criteria required a half-hour detour from the highway, we decided to forego hotels and just cram our drive into one day each way. In Atlanta, we stayed with family who, like us, had stayed safely at home for months.
3. For meals, use drive-throughs or pick up curbside.
If you have prep time, of course you can pack picnics and stop in picturesque areas to enjoy them. We didn’t have that kind of time. We packed a ton of snacks, but my two teenaged boys can get ravenous, so for hot meals, we either used fast-food drive-throughs or called ahead and picked up curbside from restaurants near the highway, using Apple Maps or Google Maps to find our best options a few miles ahead of us on the road.
4. Reconfirm curbside-pickup orders.
We ordered takeout 12 times in five days, and not once did we receive a correct order. Sometimes we ordered by phone, sometimes online, but every time, mistakes were made. It’s awkward to attempt to double-check an order that you’re picking up curbside—it isn’t feasible to look through bags and containers to determine if something is amiss—but at least you can, before driving away, look at the receipt to make sure that the order is yours and that the number of items in the bag matches the number of items you ordered. When my 18-year-old, Charlie, realized that a Longhorn Steakhouse in Atlanta had given him bags meant for a different customer, we had by that time encountered so many mistakes that he didn’t even bother returning to Longhorn to see if they could fix the problem. Instead, he called the phone number on the receipt, reached the customer who had been given our bags, and did a direct swap with the other customer.
5. Pack—and have available in the car at your seat—a supply of masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and tissues.
The tissues are for when you need to touch your face and you’re not sure your hands are clean enough (you can scratch your nose with a Kleenex), or in case there’s no toilet paper wherever you’ve stopped. And remember to put on gloves when you pump gas, especially since you won’t be washing your hands at the gas station!