Health experts sound in on vacation rental safety and COVID-19

A microbiologist and an infection control epidemiologist on sanitization of hotels and private rentals.

A microbiologist and an infection control epidemiologist on sanitization of hotels and private rentals

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

As domestic travel slowly begins to open up across the country, many Canadians are revisiting existing travel plans or looking into new, last-minute bookings for the remainder of the summer season and fall. 

But just how safe are overnight accommodations? Here, Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a microbiologist and associate professor at York University, share their advice and best practices.  

What questions should I ask my host or hotel in advance?

If you're planning to stay at a cottage or vacation rental, Furness recommends asking the host how long the premises will have been empty prior to your arrival, stating that the novel coronavirus does not last in the environment more than three days. "If the answer is three days, you're gold," he says.

Furness adds that if someone (for example, a cleaner or owner) has been in the space within an hour of your arrival, you could consider not going inside immediately to be extra cautious. He says the guidelines dictate waiting three hours, but he believes droplets in the air may settle even faster.  

With hotel-style accommodations, you might not be able to find out how long your room's been empty until you check in. But it can be helpful, suggests Golemi-Kotra, to research the lodging's current health screening procedures for employees and cleaning protocols in advance. With hotels in particular, exposure to infectious respiratory droplets from someone who is cleaning your room, for example, could be a concern. "The risk is not high when it comes to getting infected by touching contaminated surfaces," says Golemi-Kotra. "The risk of getting infected through respiratory droplets is much higher."

What about sanitizing surfaces?

When it comes to the novel coronavirus, the "viral load" tends to be higher with droplet inhalation, Furness notes that it's believed that "the primary way to get sick is inhaling droplets, and the secondary way is by touch." That said, "droplets are only in the air for a very short time, but they can linger on surfaces for a long time." In other words, it's less likely, but you can still get sick by touching an infected surface and touching your face. 

Furness notes that the half-life [of the virus] on soft surfaces is a few hours, so he thinks we needn't be too concerned about sanitizing bedding or furniture in a hotel or rental. "On soft, porous surfaces like fabrics, it starts to break down fast, and it just doesn't linger very long.

If you're staying somewhere that was occupied in the last three days, he recommends using disinfecting wipes upon arrival to focus on cleaning hard (metal or plastic) "common touch surfaces where people's hands just were and your hands are going to go" — such as doorknobs, light and lamp switches, cupboard handles, faucets, remote controls and toilet flushers. 

What are some things I can do to make my stay safer?

If you're booking a stay through a site like Airbnb, which also offers shared accommodations, Golemi-Kotra suggests selecting a rental where you have the entire place reserved, if possible. "This way, you don't have to worry about the other people [who] may have different lifestyles from yours or may have different views in terms of the disease," she says. 

Overall, cottages can be a good vacation choice for this summer. "With a cottage, you've rented the whole premises. You don't have a cleaner coming in. You don't have elevators, hallways and common spaces. You've got a lot of control," says Furness. "Cottages tend not to have air conditioning, and that's also protective … the virus degrades and becomes inactive faster [in hot, humid weather]."

If you're staying in a commercial lodging establishment, Furness suggests mitigating risk by asking for a room on a lower floor, if you're able to use the stairs, so you can avoid elevator use. "They're a small airspace — even if you're the only one in there, there are [high] touch surfaces, and there could still be droplets [in the air]," he explains. "Stairwells are better because you're passing people as opposed to standing around with them." If you do use an elevator, apply hand sanitizer after pressing any buttons. 

Furness also suggests dispensing with daily cleanings and turndown service, so that there's no one entering your room for the duration of your stay.

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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