Is Renting a Lake House the Best Way to Have a Coronavirus-Free Vacation?

With flying off the table because of the pandemic, many people are driving out to the country instead. But are rural summer homes and lake-front Airbnbs really that safe?

In the Midwest, there needs to be a lake, a friend of a friend’s boat and a minimum of two day-drinking dads for an experience to qualify as a vacation. And so, as an Illinois native, every summer I make the trip from Brooklyn to my family’s lake house in the tiny, 680-person town of Shannon. This year, of course, concerns about the coronavirus have kept me away, and yet, according to my parents — who have been entertaining family and friends in the modest three-bedroom almost every weekend — I’m the outlier.

Whether I’m the exception or the asshole for not wanting to risk illness over a swimming hole is a matter of debate, but what is clear is that COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the summer vacation for everyone. International travel is limited by European travel bans on American tourists, and as more TSA agents and airline employees report a spike in coronavirus cases, the domestic road trip is the hot new trend because it’s all we have. This is where the precarious yet tempting lake house comes in — either a relaxing respite or a viral petri dish (again, depending on who you ask). 

“The increase in demand has been nearly 10-fold! It’s been crazy to say the least,” Wren Tidwell, the owner of the rental listing LakeHouseVacations.com, tells me. The same goes for her other site, BeachHouse.com. “I do believe that lake rentals are seen as one of the safest forms of vacationing, along with beach houses. If we had the inventory, we could have booked 10 times more properties than what we had available.”

Still, Jenny, a 34-year-old in sales, is struggling with how safe such rentals are as she prepares to make an eight-hour drive from Chicago to her family’s lake house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a long Fourth of July weekend — especially her 72-year-old mother-in-law and 74-year-old father in-law. 

“The house is really isolated so I feel like we won’t see others, but my husband is nervous because his mom is a wild card and might invite even more people,” she tells me. Although the family will be split between two neighboring lake houses and they plan on doing most group activities outside, she doubts she can convince everyone to wear masks indoors. “The more I talk about it, the more I feel like we’re being too cavalier,” she says.

There are a number of protective measures travelers can take prior to leaving for their lake trip. Many of them are obvious, like frequent hand-washing, sanitizing car surfaces and calling ahead to see what safeguards properties are taking for the virus (if you’re renting). Bringing your own bedding could also decrease the risk in Airbnbs. “Review prior reservations and evaluations of prior guests. This will give some insight on the cleanliness and the consistency of the renter,” suggests Chris Colbert, assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Airbnb isn’t as strict as commercial hotel chains, so consumers should practice greater scrutiny.”

With family, there can be a false sense of security, but sharing a blood line doesn’t ensure that a person hasn’t been exposed to the virus before the trip. That’s why Joseph Allen, a professor of exposure sciences at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also recommends a two-week quarantine prior to traveling. As difficult as it is to enforce, everyone else you’re sharing a lake house with should do the same. Getting tested for COVID-19 before and after, and limiting your travel radius to somewhere local are crucial precautions as well.  

“Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation, but this also isn’t a time for ‘vacation as usual,’” Allen explains, noting that a lake house, beach house or cabin in the woods could be a good idea, if air travel is avoided and pit stops are minimized. But he warns that it’s easy to forget we’re in a global pandemic. “Save a big blowout vacation for next summer. This year, try a backyard BBQ with a small group of close friends,” he recommends. 

Ken, a 37-year-old producer in L.A., hopes to strike this balance for the upcoming holiday weekend with his wife. They’re road-tripping to San Diego County to spare their anxious dog from the fireworks, and to rent a beach house with another friend in her 30s who has been very cautious with the virus. “I’m most nervous about being inside because I’ve seen the case study from China where the AC system spread COVID to people who weren’t physically close to an infected person,” Ken tells me. “But it’s gonna be 100 degrees, so we’ll have to be inside or we’ll burn up.”

That said, the idea of wearing masks the entire time around people he trusts is a lot for him to wrap his mind around. He suspects drinking and the lowered inhibitions of vacation in general will make that even worse. “I feel like we’re all in the same frame of mind where we can look out for each other and still have a good time,” Ken says, adding that he got very sick in February, which he suspects was coronavirus. “But I’m planning on getting tested right when we get home.”

As for me, while I may get a pass for the summer, I’m not out of the very literal woods yet. Unfortunately, there’s a much larger lake-house trip looming in September — my brother’s wedding in Lake Tahoe, where I’ll be staying on a waterfront property with 14 friends and family members for the 100-plus person event. A superspreading of love, if you will. 

And to think, back in February, my biggest concern was finding a date.