Despite recommendations to the contrary by federal health authorities, millions of Americans plan to travel for Thanksgiving, with their numbers dipping only slightly from 2019 levels.
This week would normally mark the start of the end of the year holiday travel season.
However, the federal government is urging prospective travelers to reconsider. Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning against visiting family or friends, recommending that Americans stay home for Thanksgiving.
But despite the risks posed by a global pandemic, Americans apparently still want to travel.
During a recent webinar, Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, noted that there is what economists call “pent-up demand” to get out of the house and travel.
“Americans in our research are telling us they are tired of being at home. They don’t want to give up taking trips. They also want to see their friends and families,” Dow explained.
That desire appears to be stronger than fear about health risks. AAA Travel recently published a report estimating that 50 million Americans will travel for Thanksgiving this year. That represents only a 10 percent decline from 2019, when 55 million people left home to celebrate.
Dow predicted that 80% of visits would be taken via car, rather than airplane.
The prospect of millions of Americans mingling indoors does not bode well for the prospect of containing the U.S. epidemic.
Dr. Michael Parkinson, formerly head of the American College of Preventative Medicine, has been working with the U.S. Travel Association to develop health and safety recommendations. He said there is recent evidence of the risk posed by communal celebrations.
“What has happened is, over the past two to four weeks in particular, in almost every municipality, people who got together over Halloween, it’s almost like clockwork,” Parkinson noted.
“Two to four weeks later you’re going to see a surge.”
Hawaii experienced a modest increase in daily new cases one week after Halloween.
Parkinson noted that indoor group gatherings like Thanksgiving dinner create the perfect environment for spreading COVID-19. He recommends that people celebrate only with their immediate household.
“Getting together outside your immediate household contacts, you by definition increase the risk and the risk is already as high as we’ve ever seen,” he cautioned.
Local leaders are echoing those calls.
“Let’s be safe, let’s not have big gatherings,” said Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino at a recent press conference with state leaders, adding: “Let’s do what is right.”
While some residents have expressed concern about increased travel to Hawaii introducing COVID-19 to the islands, officials like Victorino, Gov. David Ige, and Lt. Gov. Josh Green all pointed out that community spread among residents is responsible for most of the new infections locally.
“It’s us really doing the spread,” said Victorino. “It’s not our visitors, it’s we, the people of Maui County and the State of Hawaii that have perpetuated the spread. Let’s work together to stop it or at least reduce it to a manageable level.”
Governor Ige confirmed that, saying: “The number of cases here in the islands that are here as a result of travel, whether visitors or returning residents is relatively small.”
At the same time, Ige acknowledged that there have been instances of visitors testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Hawaii.
In response, the state is adjusting the rules for its Safe Travel program and will now require all arriving passengers to have the results of their COVID-19 test in hand before departing for the islands, or be subject to quarantine for two weeks.
Previous guidelines allowed individuals to exit quarantine early, once the negative test results were confirmed.
More than a month after reopening tourism, Hawaii remains among the states with the lowest rates of COVID-19 spread in the country.
With several major holidays ahead, more spikes tied to group celebrations are likely to be observed in the coming weeks.