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Although the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the US, many Americans have started to return to travel, albeit with some key changes due to safety concerns.
Bucket-list trips to far-flung destinations requiring journeys through populated airports and in confined airplane cabins with other passengers seem too risky for many. Additionally, US tourists are still banned from a lengthy list of countries right now.
Instead, many travelers are opting for shorter, domestic trips that are closer to home and accessible by car, with road trips gaining popularity. But if you're among the many urban dwellers without a car of your own, you might also be asking: Are rental cars safe during the coronavirus pandemic?
For guidance in answering that question, we talked to several experts, including Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo. We also spoke to the owner of a cleaning company that now includes a new coronavirus division, as well as a representative for three of the country's largest rental car companies.
Here's what they had to say about how to know if your rental car is clean and safe; how to take extra precautions when you take possession of the car; what to ask about the company's cleaning policies; and under what conditions you could risk exposure when you rent a car.
And if you decide you do want to rent a car, we also rounded up the best rental car companies based on affordable pricing, the number of locations, flexible cancellation policies, excellent customer service, top reviews and ratings, as well as thorough new cleaning procedures.
First, consider the most likely way the novel coronavirus can be transmitted, which is directly from person to person, and then apply that logic to renting a car, in which you and others in your party are the only passengers.
"Remember that most of the transmission of the coronavirus is respiratory — it's not through inanimate objects," says Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo. "When you're in a rental car, the greatest risk is if you happen to be in the car with someone else and they could be infected," he says, noting the pre-clinical phase and much-discussed asymptomatic possibilities.
"The car is less of a risk than the potential riders in it if they happen to be new riders that you haven't been in close contact with," he says.
If it's the case that you aren't familiar with your fellow passengers' possible exposure risk, say, if they are colleagues on a business trip from different cities, you can all afford some additional protection by wearing masks, Dr. Russo notes.
But when it comes to the car itself, overall the risk is reasonably low. "Even if there's an area you touch that wasn't properly wiped down and might have been contaminated, as long as you don't touch your mouth, nose, and face, and have good hand hygiene in between, you should still be protected," Dr. Russo says.
Given rental car companies' stringent new policies detailed below, you can expect that your car will be disinfected prior to you taking possession.
"Employee and customer safety is our top priority and we are committed every day to maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness in the industry," said Dave Nestor, executive vice president of global operations for Enterprise Holdings, whose brands include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental, and Alamo Rent a Car. "With guidance from health authorities, we've made enhancements to our already rigorous cleaning protocols. We want customers to know and feel confident their vehicle is clean and sanitized every time they rent."
Those rigorous measures, for instance, include enhanced rental car cleaning measures that take place between every rental, a protocol undertaken under recommendations from various health authorities, Enterprise Holdings announced.
On top of vacuuming and general wipe-down cleaning, the company is sanitizing key areas with disinfectant between every rental including the key and key fob, center console, cupholders and compartments, seat surfaces and pockets, areas between the seat and console and seat and doorjambs, the dashboard, instrument panels, steering wheel and column, accessory panel, door interiors and pockets, all interior and exterior door handles, mirrors, and other high-touch areas. The company also has measures in place to immediately isolate and quarantine any vehicle if needed.
If you remain concerned, Dr. Russo advises the following. "Just to be sure, you could be made to feel more comfortable by wiping down the knobs and steering wheel, the high-touch areas."
John Marroni, owner and president of the disaster recovery company, National Restoration, which now has a dedicated coronavirus arm additionally suggests taking special note of the dashboard, window buttons, and armrests, as "all of those are the most susceptible" to virus transmission by way of hands.
But just those high-touch areas should do the trick, Russo says, noting it wouldn't be necessary to doubly clean areas you don't expect to touch with your hands.
He notes that seat upholstery is "not a big concern" because you're not likely to touch much of it (other than perhaps your own seat) with your hands. "But let's say you're the only person in the car and you're going to be using the driver's seat. I wouldn't worry about the stuff in the back, or even the passenger seat, if you're not going to touch it," he says. "You don't need to disinfect the entire car, just areas that you anticipate touching. And your backup is your hand hygiene."
Marroni suggests you might ask your rental car company at pickup: "What product do you use? How often do you use them? When was the car last disinfected, and how frequently is it disinfected? Is it after every use? I would want to know that." Hopefully, their answers will reassure you and edify you of specific safeguards, especially as it pertains to new coronavirus-specific protocols.
To reassure yourself, you should also take a look at small details for hints. "You might see some residue from the disinfectant spray on the window," Marroni said.
Dr. Russo notes that the virus is known to settle out of the air relatively rapidly, about one to three hours under experimental conditions, and perhaps much less in real-world scenarios, which means that air quality is not likely to be a concern by the time you take possession of the vehicle. "It has to be turned in [from the last driver], there has to be paperwork, the turnover time for the car is probably on the order of [at least] a few hours and not minutes," he says.
But you might want to ask when the last person was in the car to give yourself an added sense of security: "The longer that timeframe is, that significantly decreases the likelihood that there are any infectious particles remaining in the car," he said.
Let's consider the worst-case scenario in which the car's last driver was actually infected, and was actively sneezing and coughing in the vehicle. Yes, there would be technically a "small but finite" risk to you as the next driver, in the oft-repeated words of Dr. Russo. But you can mitigate your risk by disinfecting those high-touch surfaces and washing your hands.
He reminds would-be renters that "the virus on surfaces dies off over time. It's not that viable on inanimate objects." Beyond that, "The virus is very susceptible to disinfectant. So if you want to afford yourself an extra level of protection, wipe any areas down with a disinfectant wipe that your hand touches."
He adds a reassuring note for those people potentially traveling by rented car. "The risk is relatively low, but there will be a small but finite risk from inanimate objects — just like people are nervous about their groceries, mail, money. The secret is you can disinfect if there's any concern, and your backup is always hand hygiene," he says. "Even if you put your hand on a whole bunch of infectious virus, if you disinfect and wash your hands before you touch your nose, mouth, and eyes, you'll be safe."