Chicago travel order makes no sense

  • Sheldon H. Jacobson

    Sheldon H. Jacobson

By Sheldon H. Jacobson
Posted7/9/2020 1:00 AM

First New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut enacted policies requiring 14-day quarantines for travelers from certain states currently experiencing COVID-19 infection spikes. Now, Chicago has jumped onto the travel restriction bandwagon, requiring travelers from COVID-19 hot spot states to self-quarantine for up to 14 days. What will this accomplish? Unfortunately, nothing constructive, with several harmful consequences.

The most obvious reason that a 14-day quarantine travel order makes no sense is that it is unenforceable. There are no border controls when travelers arrive into Chicago O'Hare or Midway airports, let alone Union Station or the downtown bus terminal. Controlling the flow of travelers arriving by automobile is impossible. For example, business travelers are likely to be traveling into Chicago for less than 14 days. Asking hotels to keep track of out-of-state visitors places these establishments in an uncomfortable and untenable position as monitors and enforcers. The Chicagoland area hospitality industry is hungry for business. Such a travel order serves to inhibit and deter business travel, further exacerbating the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.


Another problem with the travel order is that states are not homogeneous with respect to COVID-19 cases, hence one-size-fits-all policies are far too blunt to be effective. For example, much of the surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida are in southern Florida, around Dade County. Travelers from Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, the state capital, have not been heavily stricken with COVID-19 cases. In fact, their overall positivity rate (4.7%) is lower than the recent positivity rate in Chicago (5.6%). Getting tested in Illinois has also been easier than many other states, helping drive down the state's positivity rate. Treating residents from areas within a state with low positivity rates the same way as residents from other areas with high positivity rates makes no sense. Recall that in April, when the Chicago area was surging with cases, downstate counties, like Sangamon and Peoria, all had low positivity rates. It would have made no sense for other states to restrict travel from all of Illinois when only the Chicagoland area was overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and a high positivity rate.

Travel restrictions within a country like ours are divisive. They are motivated by fear and foster a spirit of conflict rather than cooperation. Recall that when Chicago was surging with cases in April, California shipped 100 ventilators to the city to help meet the demand, exemplifying a spirit of collaboration. Travel restrictions inadvertently pit one part of the country against another, creating an antagonistic environment. The one thing that we do not need at this time are orders that separate us as a nation. We are all in this together. Creating travel restrictions weakens us as a nation and creates an atmosphere of divisiveness.

What can Chicago do to keep positivity rates low and prevent transmission from travelers coming from hot spot states? The solutions are already in place. Requiring face masks in all public places must be at the cornerstone of all campaigns to suppress virus transmission. Making face masks available to all travelers arriving in the city who do not have one is a positive step forward. Continue to advocate social distancing. Widely communicate the importance of these policies throughout the city, particularly at venues where visitors are likely to frequent.

Even with travelers coming into Chicago from high positivity counties around the country, they majority of people in Chicago infected at any time are residents, not visitors to the city. The key is ongoing testing to identify infected people, particularly Chicago residents, followed by isolation and contact tracing to prevent them from infecting others. Anytime people congregate indoors in areas where social distancing is challenging, the risk for virus transmission is high. The only way to keep infected people from infecting others in such environments is identifying infections as quickly as possible with testing, followed by isolation

Chicago's travel order is a blunt, unwieldy instrument: unenforceable, divisive, and economically damaging. Most importantly, it serves no lasting role in reducing virus transmission. Lastly, if Chicago's COVID-19 situation worsens, other states are sure to retaliate with their own travel orders for Chicago or Illinois residents. The COVID-19 pandemic response is a marathon, not a sprint. Short-term policies with negative long-term implications add no value in such an environment. Let's face it, drop the travel order and wear a mask.

• Sheldon H. Jacobson is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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