Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most states have issued shelter-in-place orders and instructed residents to stay put in their homes to help flatten the curve. However, some people are still required to drive to reach jobs that have been deemed essential (or who work in states that have relaxed shelter-at-home ordinances). Others have driven to be with family or to hunker down at second homes. But is driving between states safe—or even allowed? There is some uncertainty as to whether Americans can drive domestically. Here’s what you need to know.
Can I legally drive between states during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Technically, yes. The U.S. Constitution protects the right to travel and move freely within the country, so it would be unconstitutional to prevent Americans from crossing state borders. However, the federal government does have the authority to impose quarantine orders on travelers to combat the spread of contagious diseases. State governments and local authorities also have the power to enforce such measures within their borders, and are doing so.
If you plan on driving within the United States, the only restriction you may face is a mandatory self-quarantine upon arriving in another state. This is particularly true for those driving out of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. At the time of publication, these states have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
For instance, governors in Rhode Island and Texas have implemented interstate travel restrictions. These measures stop drivers at the border to remind them of quarantine requirements. In other states, municipalities have added their own restrictions within their borders. Newark, New Jersey (and the nearby towns of Irvington, Orange, and East Orange) is turning around drivers when they suspect nonessential travel. In March, the Outer Banks in North Carolina closed its bridges and opened roadblocks and police checkpoints to prevent secondary home owners and renters from entering the isolated islands. The closures are an attempt to keep the virus out, but have also been enacted because the remote islands have limited hospital beds and grocery supplies.
Note that no states have blocked drivers from passing through on their way to their final destination.
Will I have to quarantine if I drive between states?
States are discouraging interstate travel by imposing quarantine requirements or recommendations for travelers or people returning home from other states. Many states, like Wisconsin, recommend residents cancel or postpone all nonessential travel, and if it can’t be avoided, to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the state. In Arizona, new arrivals from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are required to self-quarantine for 14 days or the duration of their visit—whichever is shorter. Arrivals are not allowed to self-quarantine with anyone they did not travel with, including family and friends.
Florida has enforced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period for anyone arriving 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 arriving from (though it goes without saying that you can’t drive to Hawaii).
What should I consider before I drive between states?
First, is your drive essential? COVID-19 has been reported in all states, and some areas are experiencing rapid community spread of the disease. Staying home is the best way to flatten the curve and save lives. If you still must get behind the wheel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks you to keep some things in mind. First, is COVID-19 spreading where you live? You may not realize that you are infectious, especially if your symptoms are mild or you don’t have a fever. Before you drive to another state, consider the risk of passing COVID-19 to others during travel, particularly if you will be in close contact with older adults or those who have a serious underlying medical condition.
Second, if COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be more likely to get infected if you travel there than if you stay home.
Which states have enforced border screenings?
Florida, Rhode Island, and Texas have set up checkpoints along interstates and border crossings. Keep in mind that these stops don’t restrict entry to out-of-state travelers. Drivers are required by State Troopers and the National Guard to fill out a form and declare where they plan to shelter in place for the duration of their 14-day quarantine (if required). That information is then relayed to the state’s health department and allows public health officials to follow up via a call or an unannounced visit at a later time to make sure that you followed self-quarantine orders.
In Texas, travelers who exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, coughing, etc.) will be escorted by an officer from the Department of Public Safety to their place of quarantine. There are exceptions, though: 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 checkpoints.
What is the punishment for driving between states?
There’s no punishment for driving between states, but the added roadblocks are in place to discourage non-essential travel. Anyone found guilty of providing false information may face fines or serve jail time as punishment. Citizens who disobey local government’s social distancing and self-quarantine orders could face either jail time, a fine—or possibly even both. Some states have announced even higher fines, such as $5,000 in Maryland and $25,000 in Alaska. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that anyone who was caught ignoring stay-at-home orders in New York would face a maximum fine of $1,000.
How can I safely drive between states?
If travel is essential, driving is safer than taking commercial flights or public transportation. Renting a vehicle is still an option, though safety concerns need to be addressed. Renters should disinfect high-contact surfaces such as the steering wheel, dashboard control, and seatbelts, and should avoid touching their faces while driving.
Driving your own vehicle poses the least risk. However, you should remember that risk increases as you make stops to eat, fill your car with gas, or sleep in rented accommodations. Limit your interactions with other people as much as you can, and pack enough food and water for the trip to avoid having to make multiple stops.
If you have to leave your vehicle during the drive, maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people. To further protect yourself and others from infection, it’s best to wear a face mask—this is especially important if you are traveling to a state where wearing face masks in public is mandatory. States such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and certain counties within California all legally require face masks in public.
Before you decide to drive out of state, visit the destination state’s government website to find updated information on whether you are allowed to cross the state’s borders. Remember, staying home is still the safest option.