Those who are still venturing to and from states on the mandated quarantine list, or are at least thinking about it, face an extra dimension of travel planning.
Labor Day Weekend, usually a popular time for end-of-summer trips, has too been disrupted this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelers to and from New York face an extra layer of complication in potential vacation planning, since the state requires those returning from dozens of states to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
There are currently 33 states on New York’s list of places with a “significant degree of community-wide spread” for coronavirus, or where the rate of positive COVID-19 tests exceeds 10 percent.
The restrictions have doubtless discouraged many from travel to the city, and likely have made many New Yorkers think twice about their own travel plans.
Those who are still venturing to and from states on the mandated quarantine list, or are at least thinking about it, face an extra dimension of travel planning: how to stay on the right side of the law (and one’s duty to protect the public health) when you enter or return to the Empire State.
Caitlin Anderson and Hermes Fernandez, attorneys with the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, say they’ve spent weeks fielding questions about the state’s travel rules —from employers inquiring for workers, colleges preparing for new students on campus or individuals who want to visit family out of state.
“That’s been one of the most popular topics of the summer,” says Anderson. Some of the rules can be confusing: the list of affected states is updated frequently, so can change at any time, and there are different rules for essential and front line workers.
But more often than not, people understand the quarantine rules — they’re just not generally happy about having to comply with them, Fernandez says.
“We’ve gotten lots of questions,” he adds. “What we’ve really found is, they don’t like what it means, not they don’t know what it means.”
Here’s an overview of New York’s travel restrictions.
What’s required of travelers?
Anyone, visitor or resident, returning from a state on New York’s list of restricted places must quarantine for 14 days, starting from the last day they were in the affected state. These travelers must also fill out an online form with the State Health Department upon their return.
What if I was just passing through an affected state?
The quarantine only applies to travelers who spent more than 24 hours in a state on the list of restricted places.
What does quarantine really mean?
In a nutshell: You can’t go out in public for 14 days. Wherever you’re staying for the duration of quarantine must have a separate space for you to isolate from other members of the household should you start exhibiting symptoms, and the space should also be stocked with face masks and cleaning supplies, according to the state’s guidance.
The rules also call for the quarantining individual to have “separate bathroom facilities” — a tall order for New Yorkers in apartments with roommates. If this isn’t possible, a shared bathroom should be cleaned both before and after it’s used by the quarantining household member, a Health Department spokesman said.
The city offers hotel rooms for residents who test positive or have symptoms of COVID-19 if they have roommates or another living situation that makes it impossible to isolate.
Can I take a walk? What about groceries?
“Quarantine means you’re supposed to stay away from everybody. You’re supposed to stay home. You’re not supposed to go any place,” says Fernandez. “It’s really much more confining than you would think.”
New Yorkers can go out in their backyard or on a balcony, he adds, but only if those spaces are not accessed by other people. Even groceries and food are supposed to be delivered; if they can’t, they “should work with their local health department to ensure they can have food delivered if delivery service is otherwise unavailable,” state DOH Spokesman Jonah Bruno says.
Information on the city’s emergency food delivery program can be found here.
What about medical appointments?
A quarantining person can attend a doctor’s appointment or other medical procedure if it “cannot be postponed,” according to the state’s guidance, but must stay out of public and adhere to all quarantine rules “when the individual is not at the medical facility at which the procedure or appointment is taking place.”
What about essential workers?
Essential and frontline workers are exempt from the travel quarantine, but still must comply with a number of other rules, with conditions that vary depending on the length of time they’re staying in New York. When not at work, for instance, they’ll be expected to avoid interacting with other people as much as possible, and to wear a face covering and maintain social distancing when they do have to be in public. Essential workers coming from a restricted state who are staying in New York for more than 36 hours are also supposed to get tested for COVID-19 within the first day of their arrival, according to the rules.
If I test negative for coronavirus, can I skip the quarantine?
That’s what some other jurisdictions are doing, and what certain travel industry advocates— including the Hotel Association of New York City—want New York to allow. Maine, for instance, allows travelers from restricted states to avoid the 14-day quarantine if they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to their arrival.
But this is not an option in New York, according to Bruno.
“New York does not allow people to opt out of required quarantines after receiving a negative COVID test result,” he said in a statement. “The test only captures a moment in time.”
Okay, but will I really get in trouble if I don’t quarantine?
The city’s Sheriff’s Office has set up checkpoints at places like airports, train stations and bridge crossings across the five boroughs to ensure compliance with the state’s travel rules. Potential violations could be costly: Someone returning from an impacted state who fails to fill out the state’s online travel form could be fined $2,000, and travelers who fail to quarantine could face a $10,000 penalty.
But experts say the policy largely relies on self-enforcement; even the city’s guidance on its checkpoints notes that those who fail to complete the online traveler form will receive a fine “only in truly extreme circumstances.”
While the state has a hotline and website where people can report others for failing to comply with the quarantine, the state DOH says it’s yet to levy fines to any travelers—through a spokesman noted that local health departments are “primarily responsible” for enforcement. The city’s Health Department did not immediately respond to queries about whether it’s issued any violations under the rules.
What’s all this doing to the hotel industry?
The restrictions, which went into effect on June 25, dealt an extra blow to the city’s already-struggling hotel industry, according to Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City.
“Nobody is going to be staying for 14 days in a hotel,” says Dandapani. New York’s hotels, before the pandemic, constituted an $11 billion industry employing more than 55,000 people. Now, he says, formerly tourist-rich destinations like Midtown are “desolate.”
“Many many hotels are just going to go into bankruptcy and not open ever again as a hotel,” he says.
Overall, the pandemic has been “devastating” to the tourism industry, says Bob Provost, president and CEO of the New York State Tourism Industry Association. But that lies more in the risks associated with large gatherings and travel in general than with the state’s travel restrictions specifically, he adds.
“Quarantine has something to do with it, but it’s not as severe an impact as it would’ve been if people were not already saying, ‘I’m not getting on an airplane, I’m not doing this, we’re not having a conference,’” he says.
While the industry has been hit hard, it’s in a better position than it was at the very beginning of the pandemic, before New York began reopening again on May 15. Many travelers now are looking to avoid airplanes, seeking destinations they can drive to instead of flying, places no more than about five hours by car in a location that won’t require them to quarantine, Provost says.
That’s prompted a lot of people to stay local.
“It is compelling New Yorkers to think New York first,” he says. Travelers are taking advantage of outdoor activities like boating and biking, frequenting campsites and hiking destinations along the Empire State Trail.
“If you talk to anybody selling RVs or kayaks or bikes, they’re sold out. If you talk to campgrounds, they’re packed,” he says. “People are discovering that they can get out and explore the outdoors with their families and be socially-distanced.”