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San Francisco announces stricter lockdown; Can you transit airports under quarantine?

Dec. 22, 2020
7 min read
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San Francisco joined Santa Clara County, and now requires anyone coming from outside the Bay Area to quarantine. That includes two of the busiest airports in California - San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC).

Meanwhile in L.A., travelers are required to submit to tracing and to acknowledge the state's "requested" two-week quarantine."

So do you have to quarantine if you travel through those airports on the way to somewhere else or have a long layover?

Read on for some answers.

Related: California's COVID-19 crackdown

Navigating Northern California's strict quarantines

State of California emergency alert notification Dec 20, 2020.

Most of California's Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are full or close to full. That led several areas of California to issue "stay at home" orders including the Bay Area that will remain in effect until at least Jan. 7, 2021. Two counties have gone even further.

As of Friday Dec. 18, visitors to San Francisco County arriving from anywhere outside of the Bay Area are required to quarantine for 10 days. That means you'll need to quarantine, unless you're coming from any of the following counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Solano, or Sonoma.

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South of San Francisco, in Santa Clara County which includes the city of San Jose, anyone coming from more than 150 miles away needs to stay home or in their hotel for 10 days. Santa Clara County's previous mandate had included a 14-day quarantine. That has since been reduced to 10 days.

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Hotels are barred from allowing visitors from out-of-state unless they can check-in for their entire 10-day quarantine. Hotels and other lodging businesses are being told to advise all guests of the new rules.

Related: Do you need a negative coronavirus test to fly?

According the San Francisco Department of Health, "You must stay put, in your home or hotel room. Do not leave, except to get healthcare. Get food or groceries delivered."

There are exemptions for several categories of workers including essential workers and those coming to care for someone or to "play sports on an approved team."

Transiting in California's Airports

San Francisco International Airport September 2020. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

There is good news for people who are transiting area airports. You do not have to quarantine when transiting, even if you have an overnight layover.

San Francisco's quarantine requirements exempt travelers from quarantine if:

  • They board a connecting flight at SFO
  • They go through SFO and [are] not staying overnight

At San Francisco, if you have an overnight layover, you are exempted from quarantine as long as you stay at a hotel near the airport. This is possible because, technically, the airport is in San Mateo County. If you travel into San Francisco County, however, you will need to follow quarantine rules.

Passengers arriving at SFO and SJC will receive forms outlining the new policies, though some have been surprised to hear about the new rules.

Los Angeles County is also now requiring all arriving passengers via train or plane to fill out paperwork acknowledging a “recommended” two-week quarantine. Travelers will be required to sign a form that they are aware of the quarantine guidelines. They are also asked to provide contact information for future tracing. Failure to do so may result in a fine of up to $500. Transit passengers are exempt. The form is now available at or by scanning the QR code posted at airports or train stations.

Enforcement in California

Enforcement of quarantines, however, is another matter. There is little evidence so far of any enforcement in Santa Clara County. In fact, people arriving at SJU are not being traced or asked to fill out any forms. Arrivals at SFO have been surprised at the news.

The San Francisco Police Department said punishments would be a "last resort."

"San Francisco will continue its approach of first educating people about what is required under the health orders, but the City will take additional enforcement steps if the situation demands. Violation of or failure to comply with this order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. The order allows for enforcement for non-compliance, but it is a last resort."

Violators could be subject to $1,000 fines, but so far it doesn't appear anyone has been cited.

Other U.S. and international airports

We've heard of very few instances where transit has been an issue for domestic itineraries. Hawaii, however, is an exception and has been a bit of a mess when it comes to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Regulations here have been continuously changing, so check the latest information before you go. You'll be able to transit through Hawaii's airports, but be sure to pay careful attention to the travel forms you'll be asked to fill out.

Related: I just traveled to Hawaii - Here's what it was like

TPG reporter Madison Blancaflor, who recently visited Hawaii, told me that if you have a layover at a Hawaii airport but it’s not your final destination, you'll need to fill out a "Safe Travels" document before you arrive and indicate your reason for travel. On the Safe Travels web site, select the option that describes your trip as a layover to a final destination.

(Screenshot courtesy of Hawaii Safe Travels website) The state has a 10-day quarantine rule for most visitors, but none is required if you're in transit.

Related: Everything you need to know about transiting international airports

Most international airports are allowing transit passengers too, though, some have been stricter than others, or not enforcing rules consistently, during the pandemic. Be sure to have your paperwork and have any required test results in hand to avoid problems. Check with your airline often as country entry requirements and transit rules have been changing often.

The bottom line

Even as coronavirus cases continue to surge, many are traveling for the holidays. If you are transiting an area under new quarantine rules, you are not likely to have issues.

Related: Flying during the holidays - Here's what you need to know to stay safe

And while enforcement of the new local quarantine orders has been fairly lax, the new measures are designed to get people to rethink travel to areas of the country where health infrastructure is strained. Our best advice? Avoid areas under quarantine to help local health care systems absorb the latest surge.

Featured image by Golden Gate Bridge December 2020. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)