Updated on May 6, 2020
There are nearly 1.25M known cases and more than 73,000 fatalities from COVID-19 in the USA at the time of writing. In response, most states have issued stay-at-home orders to prevent further spreading and to “flatten the curve.” However, over the last few weeks, some areas have started easing restrictions.
Nonetheless, there is still some uncertainty as to whether people can travel domestically. We all know that any kind of unnecessary travel is highly discouraged right now, but there are those who may not have a choice.
Perhaps you had already planned on moving to another state and your move-in date, unfortunately, happened to fall within your state’s stay-at-home period; or maybe you need to travel across the country to care for an ill or elderly family member.
Whatever your reason, here’s what you need to know about state-to-state travel.
Can You Travel from One State to Another?
The short answer is yes—for now. The US Constitution protects your right to travel and move freely within the country, so it would be unconstitutional to prevent any American from crossing state borders. However, constitutional law experts say that it may not be unlawful for a state to close its borders in the midst of a public health crisis.
“Although it would not necessarily be wise or effective for states to close their borders, courts would likely uphold such restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” comments Marjorie Cohn, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and a former professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
As of this writing, there are no regulations prohibiting domestic travel. However, government authorities and public health experts highly discourage all forms of social visits and nonessential travel at this time.
Keep in mind that each state has its own list of activities that are considered essential. While most (if not all) states allow supply runs, work travel (for essential workers), outdoor exercise, and traveling to care for the elderly or disabled family members, there are certain provisions that some states have and some do not.
For example, in Alabama, the stay-at-home order announced on April 3 by Governor Kay Ivey includes religious services as an essential activity, although there’s a stipulation that these gatherings must be limited to 10 people, with everyone required to stay at least six feet apart.
“Drive-in” worship services are also permitted, as long as people stay inside their vehicles.
What is the Punishment for Violating Stay-at-Home Orders?
Punishments for violators will depend on the state. People who disobey their local government’s social distancing and self-quarantine orders could face either jail time or a fine of around $500 to $1,000—or possibly even both.
Keep in mind that state governments may change their enforcement methods as the weeks go by. Governor Gavin Newsom, for instance, had initially hoped to avoid arrests and civil fines, relying on “social pressure” to get Californians to comply with the stay-at-home orders that were announced on March 19.
However, with many people still defiantly breaking these mandates, this has since changed. On March 27, a surfer was fined $1,000 in Manhattan Beach, while a paddleboarder was arrested in Malibu on April 2.
On April 6, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that anyone who was caught flouting stay-at-home orders in New York would now face a maximum fine of $1,000—which is double the initial fine.
You May Be Required to Self-Quarantine When Visiting Certain States
While rules that infringe on a person’s constitutional right to freedom of movement may be deemed unconstitutional, the federal government does have the authority to impose quarantine or isolation to combat the spread of contagious diseases. State governments and local authorities also have the power to enforce such measures within their borders.
Therefore, if you plan on traveling within the US, the only restriction you may face is an imposed self-quarantine upon your arrival at another state. This is particularly true for those traveling out of New York and its neighboring states, as these areas currently have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country. The White House Coronavirus Task Force recommends that anyone leaving the New York metro area must self-isolate for two weeks upon arriving at their destination.
Florida has enforced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period for anyone flying in from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as Louisiana. Meanwhile, states like Hawaii and Alaska are requiring all arrivals to self-isolate—regardless of which state they are flying in from.
Who is Exempted from Mandatory Self-Quarantine When Traveling to Another State?
Once again, the rules may differ depending on the state. For example, as with most states, Delaware requires anyone from out-of-state to self-quarantine for two weeks—but the order does not apply to individuals who are simply passing through or people who are traveling into Delaware to work for an essential business or to provide emergency services.
Before you travel out of state, visit your destination state’s government website to find updated information on whether you are allowed to cross the state’s borders and whether your purpose for traveling is deemed “essential.”
States with Enforced Border Screenings
Some states, such as Florida and Rhode Island, have taken a different approach to combat the spread of COVID-19 by setting up checkpoints along the I-95, I-10, and other border crossings. To be clear, these stops do not restrict entry to out-of-state travelers. State troopers and members of the National Guard conduct these screenings to collect information that is relayed to the state’s health department.
Motorists at these stops are required to fill out a form and declare where they plan to shelter in place. This information will allow public health officials to follow up and check on their condition via a call or an unannounced visit at a later time.
Commercial vehicles, law enforcement, emergency personnel, and essential workers who work in the state or are passing through to get to their place of employment are allowed to bypass these checkpoints.
Authorities hope that the added roadblock will effectively discourage non-essential travel among citizens. Anyone found guilty of providing false information or failing to comply with the agreed quarantine guidelines may face fines or serve jail time as punishment.
Some local communities like the Florida Keys and Outer Banks, Dare County have taken matters into their own hands, restricting entry to travelers who cannot produce proof of residence. County officials have limited entry to those who can present local identification, a hard copy of a deed or lease, a tax bill, a utility bill, or a letter from their employer/pay stub.
Law experts and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are challenging the constitutionality of any type of border screening as they may be considered an infringement on the citizen’s right to travel under the Fifth Amendment.
Is it Safe for You to Travel Within the US?
Any time you leave home and come into contact with other people, you put yourself at risk of infection. With that in mind, it is important that you thoroughly assess the situation before attempting to travel across state lines.
1. Are you at risk of spreading or catching the virus while traveling?
If there is an outbreak in your city or county, you may unknowingly spread the virus while on your way to your destination. Anyone can be a carrier—even if you aren’t currently presenting any symptoms.
At the same time, there’s also the possibility of catching the virus upon travel and causing an outbreak within your community upon your return.
2. What mode of transportation are you taking?
Riding mass transport systems is incredibly risky at this time due to the fact that you will be in an enclosed space with large groups of people for an extended period of time. Public transportation has long been linked to disease outbreaks, as there are many possible avenues for transmission.
While renting a vehicle is one option, make sure to disinfect high-contact surfaces such as the steering wheel, dashboard control, and even the seatbelt. Car rental companies will of course clean and sanitize each vehicle before renting it out to the next person, but it never hurts to be careful.
Obviously, driving your own vehicle poses the least risk among the three. However, you should remember that the risk increases as you make multiple stops to grab food, fill up your car with gas, or stay in rented accommodations, if you’re driving cross-country over several days.
3. Are you, your travel companions, or the people you are visiting considered high-risk individuals?
Traveling might do more harm than good if you, your travel companions, or the people you will be visiting belong to the group identified as high-risk for COVID-19 complications by the CDC.
People at risk of severe illness due to the virus include anyone over 65, people of all ages with chronic heart and lung conditions, immunocompromised patients, severely obese individuals with underlying conditions, and pregnant women.
4. Are you able to go on self-quarantine upon arrival?
Be prepared to self-quarantine for 14 days if you decide to travel to another state. As previously mentioned, this is currently a requirement in certain states. In Alaska, for instance, all visitors are required to self-isolate—regardless of where they came from. Violators will reportedly face a hefty fine of up to $25,000 or up to one year in jail.
Those who cannot afford to take two weeks off to isolate themselves should reconsider their travel plans and stay at home.
Health & Safety Tips for Interstate Travel
1. Plan your route beforehand to minimize stops
Under the current circumstances, you must limit your interactions with other people as much as you can. Fill up your tank before leaving and pack enough food and water for the trip to avoid having to take multiple stops at gas stations and convenience stores.
2. Practice social distancing and observe proper coughing/sneezing etiquette in public
If you have to leave your vehicle, maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people. When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with your arm or a piece of tissue.
If you use the latter, make sure to immediately throw it away and wash your hands with soap before touching anything.
3. Wear a face mask or some kind of face covering
To further protect yourself from infection, it’s best to wear a face mask. Ideally you’d need a surgical or N95 mask, but due to the scarcity of these items, many people are opting for reusable cloth masks or even bandannas.
This is especially important if you are traveling to a state where wearing face masks in public is now mandatory. This is true for states such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and certain counties within California.
4. Carry soap, disinfectant wipes, or hand sanitizer at all times
Frequent hand washing is the best way to protect yourself from catching the coronavirus. Make sure to bring soap, disinfectant wipes, rubbing alcohol (at least 60 percent), or hand sanitizer. You need to be able to effectively sanitize your hands and other high-touch surfaces in your car throughout your trip.
5. Be mindful when handling the gas pump
As a precaution, wipe down the gas pump handle and keypad with a disinfecting wipe before filling up your tank or making a payment. You may also use disposable gloves or a paper towel to protect your skin from touching the handle.
5. Take a shower immediately upon arrival
Everyone’s focused on hand washing right now, but think about it—what if your forearm inadvertently grazed the gas pump while you were filling up your tank? Or what if your clothes accidentally brushed the surface of your car as you were unloading your luggage?
In these uncertain times, it’s best to assume that everything is contaminated. Apart from just washing your hands, make sure to take a shower and change into clean clothes as soon as you arrive at your destination.
6. Sanitize your belongings
You may also want to disinfect your belongings—particularly high-touch items that you wouldn’t normally think to clean, such as your car keys, wallet, credit cards, and of course, your smartphone.
Don’t forget the handles and zippers on your handbag and/or luggage as well.
Stay home if you’re sick. This should go without saying, but you should definitely just cancel your trip if you are exhibiting symptoms such as cough, a fever, or even a simple runny nose.
This isn’t just for other people’s protection, mind you. Traveling while sick, even if it’s just a simple cold, puts you at even greater risk of contracting the virus as your immune system may be in a weakened state.
As this is a developing situation, additional states may release stay-at-home orders and interstate travel mandates. Currently enforced regulations may also be amended or modified. As more information becomes available, be sure to check your state’s official government website as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for official updates and announcements.