As the novel coronavirus steadily moves from country to country and city to city, airlines, bus companies, and transit operators find themselves suddenly at the front lines of a public health crisis. The people running these sprawling systems have spent the past few weeks gathering the tools they need to stymie the spread of the disease, from mini-mops to fogging machines to backpacks loaded with disinfectant spray.
First off, the likelihood of picking up the virus while you’re on the move may not be as high as you think. The coronavirus is spread through sustained contact with “viral droplets” from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes. Though a tightly packed train or bus might lend itself to a transmission, public health experts say that public transit may be less virus-fecund than other places people gather for longer periods, like classrooms or open-plan offices. Especially in dense cities, riders tend to hop on and off transit more quickly, which means they have less time to share viral nasties.
On airplanes, flyers breathe a mix of air pulled from the atmosphere and recirculated air put through filters that remove more than 99.9 percent of microbes. That air moves from the top of the plane to the bottom, so you’re only sharing the stuff with the people in your immediate vicinity. And even if someone is sneezing, the germs they expel are unlikely to fly more than a meter. “Unless you’re really a super shooter,” says Vicki Stover Hertzberg, “gravity takes over.” Hertzberg, who studies how disease moves through planes at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, says you can confine your wary looks to your immediate neighbors in your row, the one in front of you, and the one behind.
Still, it’s not a perfect rule: A 2005 study of SARS transmission in aircraft found that on a March 2003 flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, one ill passenger spread the infection to passengers as far as seven rows away. Possible culprits for that kind of transmission include fomites, the objects and surfaces on which germs can land and hang out for up to a few hours, ready to be picked up. So once you’re sitting—on an airplane or train seat—consider taking a disinfecting wipe to the armrests, tray table, and seatback screen. If you don’t have the balance to keep your hands off others’ seats as you walk to the plane bathroom, Hertzberg recommends, put a barrier over your hand, like a tissue.
The transportation industry’s response to the coronavirus is two-fold: less touching and more cleaning. Many of these efforts go beyond the recommendations of the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, which only advise extra cleaning if a symptomatic passenger has been identified. (In that case, says the CDC, spray down everything within six feet of their seat, wash anything that can be laundered in warm water, and throw away what you can’t wash. While you’re doing it, wear a protective gown and gloves, and keep the ventilation running.)
Cathay Pacific has stopped handing out hot towels, pillows, blankets, and magazines, in the interest of reducing contact between passengers and crew. JetBlue, too, killed the hot towels and is providing disinfecting wipes to customers. It’s also “stepping up” its daily aircraft cleaning and more frequently sanitizing common surfaces in its terminals, a spokesperson says. American Airlines is ramping up sanitation of catering equipment on “key” international flights, and is sanitizing dishes, cutlery, and glassware before washing.