In just three weeks, an outbreak of a new virus with pneumonia-like symptoms has spread from a wildlife market in central China to become a global threat, with hundreds of cases reported worldwide and at least two in the U.S. To date, this coronavirus has caused at least two dozen deaths and spurred the Chinese government to effectively shut down movement in 12 cities, including Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the virus started.
With January 25 marking the start of the Lunar New Year, the outbreak comes at a time when around three billion travelers were expected to crisscross China over the 15-day period that’s known as the world’s largest annual human migration. It’s enough to worry international experts, though the World Health Organization has so far stopped short of declaring a global public-health emergency. Unsurprisingly, many Chinese have already canceled their holiday travel plans, while airports across the world have implemented screening measures.
Should travelers stay home? Here’s what to know.
What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
There are many types of coronaviruses, which cause everything from the common cold to more serious zootonic maladies (like the Wuhan one) that spread from animals to humans. What’s particularly concerning about the Wuhan coronavirus is that it originated in a wildlife market, much like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003. As National Geographic’s Nsikan Akpan reports, zoonotic diseases “rank among the world’s most infamous” and include potentially deadly infections HIV and Ebola.
Public health officials don’t yet know how contagious this virus is. So far, evidence suggests that older adults and people with existing health conditions are at greatest risk. But there’s still much left to learn, says Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. “One of the challenges now is that we just don’t understand what the degree of risk is in terms of human-to-human spread,” he says. “We’re still understanding how serious this virus will be for the average person.”
What’s happening on the ground?
Wuhan—home to more people than New York City—is a major air and rail transit hub. If you’re heading through or to the centrally located city, you’ll need to change plans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding all non-essential travel to Wuhan. Chinese authorities are also shutting off transportation out of the city (and out of neighboring cities Huanggang and Ezhou) in a quarantine that the New York Times describes as “unprecedented.’’
Public transportation within the city has also been curtailed. And the local government has canceled public activities for Lunar New Year, including an annual event at the Guiyuan Temple that attracted 700,000 tourists last year. Officials are also imposing travel restrictions on residents of smaller neighboring cities Chibi and Zhijiang.
What about other Lunar New Year celebrations and sites?
In an effort to contain the virus, Chinese authorities have been imposing restrictions on mass gatherings—including planned Lunar New Year celebrations. In Beijing, the Washington Post reports that the normally bustling Forbidden City, one of the country’s top tourist attractions, has closed until further notice. Authorities have also shut down a section of the Great Wall of China that’s closest to Beijing as well as sites including the National Museum of China. The capital city has canceled all large-scale holiday events such as temple fairs. Shanghai Disneyland and Disneytown announced a temporary closure, promising to assist guests with refunds.
You may begin to see cities in other parts of China or the region close attractions and call off events as new information emerges. Macau, for example, has canceled its Lunar New Year parade; the Hong Kong Football Association has scrapped its Lunar New Year Cup.
Should you avoid all large gatherings in Asia? Garibaldi says that the best thing to do is stay informed on the latest developments before making decisions.
What if you’ve planned a trip to China?
If you have booked travel routed through Wuhan, check with your airline or travel agency to see if you’re eligible for a refund. Cathay Pacific Airways is waiving rebooking, rerouting, and refund charges for all tickets arriving to or departing from Wuhan issued on or before January 21 for travel between now and March 31, 2020. Several other airlines, travel agencies, and hotel groups are offering refunds as well. Wuhan tourism authorities are also requiring travel agencies to grant refunds for group tours, which were suspended even before the quarantine.
Cases of the coronavirus have also been reported in cities across China and the region. As of January 24, the CDC recommends travelers take the usual precautions when traveling to China: avoiding contact with sick people, washing hands often with soap and water, and avoiding animals and their products (i.e. uncooked meat). Flights are still operating normally outside of Wuhan, but check with your airline or tour operator for up-to-the-minute information. If you’ve purchased travel insurance, check your policy to find out if it covers cancellation or emergency medical coverage.
Garibaldi suggests travelers keep checking the CDC’s latest travel advisories for updates, including new regions at risk. “The best thing is to stay informed, because things are going to be changing pretty rapidly over the next few days,” he says.
How is this impacting air and sea travel?
Air travelers departing China—particularly those who have passed through Wuhan—can expect to have their temperatures checked. In the U.S., the CDC has been screening passengers from Wuhan at major airports in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. The Associated Press has an extensive list of airports worldwide conducting screening.
Cruise lines are also being affected. The International Business Times reports that Astro Ocean Cruises and Costa Cruises are both planning to offer refunds to any passenger who has a fever or has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Line is screening passengers departing from Chinese ports and denying entry to anyone who has been to Wuhan in the last 30 days or has a body temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
Garibaldi says that health screenings serve two purposes: They allow officials to identify, quickly isolate, and treat infected individuals, and they also remind healthy passengers to seek care immediately if they start to show symptoms.
What about future travel?
China has ordered all travel agencies to suspend sales of domestic and international tours. But if you’re booking on your own, Garibaldi says, the key is to be flexible in your travel plans if new information comes to light. “Now is not the time to take a long vacation and not look at your phone or check the news if you’re traveling in one of these areas,” he says.