Can I travel right now? Chicago’s emergency travel restrictions explained

A color-coded system categorizes U.S. states by outbreak severity, accompanied by quarantining and testing requirements.

Zach Long
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Zach Long
Drink service, airplane
Photograph: Shutterstock

UPDATE (Dec 15): Here are the states covered under the Chicago emergency travel order as of Tuesday, December 15:

Red tier states: Rhode Island, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Delaware, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alaska, Connecticut, California, Alabama, Wyoming, Montana, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, West Virginia

Orange tier states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Maryland, Florida, Virginia, Texas, District of Columbia, Oregon, Maine, Puerto Rico, Vermont

Yellow tier states: Hawaii

Chicago has introduced an updated version of its emergency travel order, which was originally introduced in July, asking travelers entering or returning to Chicago from states with high COVID-19 rates to quarantine for 10 days (reduced from the original 14 day, per CDC recommendations). Effective Friday, November 13, 2020, the updated order uses a color-coded system to classify what measures should be taken after traveling to a state and whether or not the Chicago Department of Public Health advises travel to or from a certain state.

The update order divides states into the following color-coded categories:

  • Red - States having outbreaks worse than Chicago (more than 60 daily cases per 100,000 residents). Avoid travel to these states and quarantine for 10 days if entering or returning to Chicago from these states.
  • Orange - States having outbreaks lesser than Chicago, but still concerning (between 15–60 daily cases per 100,000 residents). Avoid travel to these states. Quarantine for 10 days if entering or returning to Chicago these states OR get a pre-arrival negative COVID-19 test no more than 72 hours prior to arrival in Chicago.
  • Yellow - States with fewer than 15 daily cases per 100,000 residents. Avoid non-essential travel to these states. No quarantine is required if entering or returning to Chicago from these states.

Like the previous travel order, there are exceptions for those needing to travel for work, health care or shared parental custody agreements. Those found in violation of the order can be fined $50–$150 a day for a total of up to $7,000. 

So what does this mean for travel prospects over the next few months, particularly as we approach the holiday season? During a press conference announcing the updated restrictions, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady stressed that rising virus levels in both Chicago and the rest of the nation make travel a high risk activity. That's true even for yellow-tiered states, as Chicagoans could carry the virus to those populations.

"Now is not the time to be traveling, now is not the time to be gathering, now is not the time to have people inside your home who do not live there," Arwady said. 

The city plans to announce another round of travel restrictions next week. Moving forward, the emergency travel order will only be updated every two weeks in an effort to avoid anomalies related to holiday travel—though if you're still thinking of skipping town or hosting large holiday gatherings, keep in mind that neither activity is recommended by the Chicago Department of Public Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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