Despite Warnings on Covid Uptick, Millions Travel for Thanksgiving Holiday

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Miami International Airport is the latest airport to provide Simplified Arrival airport-wide. Rising U.S. coronavirus cases, a new round of state lockdowns and public health guidance discouraging trips are dampening enthusiasm for what is usually the biggest travel period of the year. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

By: Dee-Ann Durbin, David Koenig & Tammy Webber

About 1 million Americans a day packed airports and planes over the weekend even as coronavirus deaths surged across the U.S. and public health experts begged people to stay home and avoid big Thanksgiving gatherings.

And the crowds are only expected to grow. Next Sunday is likely to be the busiest day of the holiday period.

To be sure, the number of people flying for Thanksgiving is down by more than half from last year because of the rapidly worsening outbreak. However, the 3 million who went through U.S. airport checkpoints from Friday through Sunday marked the biggest crowds since mid-March, when the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the United States.

Many travelers are unwilling to miss out on seeing family and are convinced they can do it safely. Also, many colleges have ended their in-person classes, propelling students to return home.

Laurie Pearcy, director of administration for a Minneapolis law firm, is flying to New Orleans to attend her daughter’s bridal shower and have a small Thanksgiving dinner with her son.

“I don’t want to unknowingly make anyone sick. But I also don’t want to miss this special event for my only daughter,” she said.

Stephen Browning, a retired executive from Tucson, Arizona, will be flying to Seattle for Thanksgiving with his sister. The celebration usually has up to 30 people; this year only 10 are coming, and everyone was asked to get a coronavirus test. He doesn’t plan on removing his mask to eat or drink on the flight.

“This is my first flight since December 2019, so yes, I have concerns,” he said. “But I think most airlines are acting responsibly now and enforcing masks on all flights.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel or spend the holiday with people outside their household.

New cases of the virus in the U.S. have rocketed to all-time highs, averaging more than 170,000 per day, and deaths have soared to over 1,500 a day, the highest level since the spring. The virus is blamed for more than a quarter-million deaths in the U.S. and over 12 million confirmed infections.

“There is so much community transmission all over the United States that the chances of you encountering somebody that has COVID-19 is actually very, very high, whether it’s on an airplane, at the airport or at a rest area,” said Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious-disease epidemiologist for New York City hospitals.

The nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that people at airports “are going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now.”

The message may be sinking in for some.

Bookings in 2020 are down about 60% from where they were this time last year. Thanksgiving reservations were ticking upward in early October but fell back again as case numbers surged. Since airlines have made it easier to cancel tickets, there could be a rash of cancellations closer to the holiday, said John Elder, an adviser to airlines from Boston Consulting Group.

In 2019, a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through U.S. airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving. This year, the industry trade group Airlines for America isn’t even providing a forecast because things are so uncertain.

Because of tighter restrictions by many governments, air travel in other parts of the world has, in contrast, come to a near standstill. In Europe, traffic between countries was down by 83% in September from a year earlier, and that has only worsened since then because many countries imposed new limits.

Alejandro Zuniga and his fiancee, Megan Muhs, who live in Costa Rica, thought briefly about flying to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving to see Muhs’ family but decided against it. They also nixed a trip to the U.S. in December.

“No part of a major international trip seems safe at this point,” Zuniga said. The pair plans to make video calls to family and stream the Detroit Lions football game on Thanksgiving Day.

Josh Holman and his family were planning to fly to Lake Tahoe and spend Thanksgiving with his brother, who lives in San Francisco, and his parents, who live in North Dakota. But they scrapped those plans.

“I see it as my civic duty not to spread this virus further,” said Holman, an assistant county prosecutor who lives outside Detroit.

More people tend to drive than fly over Thanksgiving, but even car travel is expected to see a drop-off, according to AAA. Based on surveys in mid-October, the association was expecting 47.8 million people to drive to Thanksgiving gatherings, down 4% from last year. But AAA said the drop could prove to be even bigger, given the worsening crisis.

On Monday, AP reported that state and local officials nationwide are imposing new coronavirus restrictions and pleading with the public in an increasingly desperate attempt to stop the explosive spread of the disease as many Americans resist calls to limit gatherings and travel heading into the holidays.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tightened restrictions on casinos, restaurants and private gatherings beginning Tuesday. In California, where most counties are under a curfew, Los Angeles County officials will prohibit in-person dining for at least three weeks, and a judge on Monday denied a request to temporarily restore indoor service at restaurants and gyms in San Diego County. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts warned that he could impose tighter social-distancing restrictions before Thanksgiving if hospitalizations continue to rise.

Sisolak, who has avoided tightening mandates throughout the fall because of the potential damage to Nevada’s tourism-based economy, said the trends led to an “inescapable conclusion.”

“We are on a rapid trajectory that threatens to overwhelm our health care system, our front-line health workers and your access to care. So it’s time to act,” said Sisolak, who recently contracted COVID-19.

Around 83,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Infections have led to a shortage of hospital beds and health care workers, and they threaten non-COVID-19-related surgeries and other care.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday issued an executive order authorizing the state health department to order hospitals and emergency departments to transfer non-virus patients and to cease admitting new ones to deal with the influx of coronavirus cases.

In Washington state, elective procedures such as joint and heart valve replacements and some cancer surgeries could be postponed to make room for coronavirus patients, said Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer.

Adding to the stress: Some of the new restrictions are throwing people out of work again.

Economists worry that companies laying off workers will reverse the solid job gains since the spring and even push up the unemployment rate again. In a troublesome sign, the number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose last week for the first time in five weeks.

About 20 million Americans are now receiving some form of unemployment benefits, but about half will lose those benefits when two federal programs expire at the end of the year.

But the message from President-elect Joe Biden to local health officials is that the best way to get the economy back on track is to get the virus under control until a vaccine is widely available.

Despite pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to skip Thanksgiving travel and not spend the holiday with people from outside their household, about 1 million people a day packed airports and planes over the weekend. The crowds are expected to grow.

Even so, health officials are trying everything they can to slow the spread and address an even worse surge that many say is inevitable.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he is reopening an emergency COVID-19 field hospital on Staten Island, the first such facility in the state to relaunch since the state partly tamed the pandemic over the summer. New York state has averaged nearly 5,500 new cases per day over the past seven days.

The temporary hospital cared for 200 patients last spring, when New York City’s hospital wards were overwhelmed with seriously ill and dying patients. Now, Cuomo said, officials are concerned it might be needed again, as the virus has spread in the borough at a faster rate than in the rest of the city. Staten Island has averaged 209 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the past seven days — up 86% from two weeks ago. (AP)