Apocalypse: Now What? License to drive

Readers ask: When and where is it OK to get behind the wheel during a pandemic? We explore the gray area.

car on road

A car makes its way down Petit Street past Carey's Slough in Hamilton in Skagit County, Jan. 28, 2020. (Genna Martin for Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

If the enduring popularity of the Fast & Furious franchise and Pixar’s worst series of movies prove anything, it’s that from an early age we are primed to love driving. And who can blame us? Between the siren song of the open road, the strangely alluring scent of gasoline and the nice-try-but-needs-work state of our mass transit system, it’s usually the most versatile, autonomous way to get around the Northwest.

But the coronavirus pandemic and Washington’s accompanying stay-at-home orders have stretched us well beyond “usual” times. Car travel should be limited to urgent or necessary trips: food, medicine, family care or assistance and the like. But "necessary" is subjective, and there’s a lot of gray area: The Constitution ensures a citizen’s “right to travel,” but states also reserve the right to use law enforcement powers to protect themselves from disease. Some states are requiring travelers from other states to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

We’ve received many questions about when one should and shouldn’t drive. As we should all come to expect, hard and fast answers won’t come easily; as mentioned last week, the choice will often come down to risk management and asking the right questions to manage that risk.

In this lightning round, I will address some of our most frequently asked questions about driving. The choice is ultimately yours, but I’ll provide a handy-dandy GIF as shorthand for an official recommendation (once again, I’m not an official): Encouraged, Needs more information, or Discouraged.

Question: Can you drive your own car to visit relatives in California?


Discouraged. Unless this is a family emergency, this trip would violate the spirit of stay-at-home orders in place across all West Coast states. The plural “relatives” is also disturbing because it sounds like you’d be mixing with multiple people after crossing three states, stopping for gas, food, bathroom trips, etc., along the way. Even if you’re careful, you would expose numerous communities on the way down and on your return trip. It’s hard for all of us to miss out on seeing our loved ones, but postponing in-person visits until we’re in the clear goes a long way toward beating this thing.

Question: Can I go for a motorcycle ride by myself or with my wife as long as I only stop for gas?

Discouraged. Even if you restrict yourself to stopping for gas and you maintain social distancing, there’s the uncomfortable fact that motorcycle riders are at substantially higher risk of death or injury per mile traveled than car drivers. What’s more, those injuries will put you at risk in a hospital setting, and hospital staff at risk, should you be a coronavirus carrier. It’s not a hypothetical: A health care worker recently told me about an incident where they had to use valuable personal protective equipment to repair the shattered tibial plateau of a motorcycle rider. The joy rides would be better saved for after stay-at-home orders have lifted.

Question: I usually try to walk to the grocery store, but I’m trying to limit my visits to once a week or less for a family of five. Can I drive my car to do so, if I practice social distancing, wear my mask, sanitize going in and out and back home?


Encouraged. Given your forethought into how you plan to manage exposure, this seems like a reasonable driving situation — and even has the benefit of limiting your risk by cutting down on trips to a high-traffic area, like the grocery store.

RELATED: Apocalypse: Now What? What to do with social-distance violators

Question: If my family, wife and kids want to just get into a car and just drive around to get out of the house, say drive to the mountains without anyone else that is not from our household, can we do that?


Discouraged. Once again, we must invoke the joy ride principle: While I sympathize deeply with the desire to catch fresh air and mountain views, especially with cooped-up kids, it’s hard to argue it’s essential. As epidemiologist Rachel Patzer explained to the New York Times, citizens under stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders should keep fresh-air outings close to home and limit car travel.

Question: Can I travel from city to city to pick up family and bring them home?

needs more info

Needs more information. If the city is in Washington (or many neighboring states), there’s nothing preventing you from going. Additionally, if you’re picking family up to shelter together or offer necessary care they couldn’t otherwise receive, it might be worth the risk. But there’s risk: Depending on your or your family’s adherence to social distancing or exhibition of symptoms, you may want to consider a strict two-week quarantine on both ends before exposing yourselves to each other. Plan your route with minimal stops for food and gas (none, if possible) and think through the steps (hand sanitizing, keeping hands away from your face) you’ll need to employ to minimize exposure.

Question: Can I travel to another state? I was planning to move to Nevada to be with my mother, as she is getting old. Will this stay-at-home order affect me traveling through Oregon, California and then into Las Vegas?

Needs more information. The stay-at-home orders won’t prevent you from traveling through Oregon, California or Nevada — but you would be traveling from areas of higher risk to Clark County, an area with fewer COVID-19 cases (they seem to be slowing). You don’t say your mother’s age, but you mention “she is getting old.” For the purposes of this question, let’s err on the side of caution and assume she’s at higher risk simply because of age. Is she otherwise in good health and independent? Has she been isolating so far? Have you? Have you shown any symptoms? If your mother is safe and able to take care of herself, you may want to strongly consider holding off visiting to limit her exposure. If you feel her need is urgent, you should both self-quarantine for two weeks and prepare a detailed route plan (stops, sanitization, etc.) to limit exposure.

Question: I live in Washington state. Can I drive three hours north to go and stay with my son?


Discouraged. I will assume that by “three hours north,” you must mean Canada. This is looking tricky right now: Coronavirus closures at the U.S.-Canada border are staying in place for the next 30 days. Unless you can establish essential travel or possibly a health emergency, you are unlikely to be able to cross the border to stay with your son. Know that you aren’t alone, and many families are struggling with separation at the border.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.