By Lisa Marie Pane and Sophia Tulp
Millions of Americans took to the skies and the highways ahead of Thanksgiving at the risk of pouring gasoline on the coronavirus fire, disregarding increasingly dire warnings that they stay home and limit their holiday gatherings to members of their own household.
Those who are flying witnessed a distinctly 2020 landscape at the nation’s airports during what is traditionally one of the busiest travel periods of the year: plexiglass barriers in front of the ID stations, rapid virus testing sites inside terminals, and paperwork asking them to quarantine on arrival at their destination.
While the number of Americans traveling by air over the past several days was down dramatically from the same time last year, many pressed ahead with their holiday plans amid skyrocketing deaths, hospitalizations and confirmed infections across the U.S.
Some were tired of more than eight months of social distancing and determined to spend time with loved ones.
“I think with the holidays and everything, it’s so important right now, especially because people are so bummed out because of the whole pandemic,” said 25-year-old Cassidy Zerkle of Phoenix, who flew to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit family.
She brought snacks and her own hand sanitizer and said the flight was half full. She had a row of seats to herself.
“As long as you’re maintaining your distance, you’re not touching stuff and you’re sanitizing your hands, people should see their families right now,” she said.
The coronavirus is blamed for more than 12.6 million confirmed infections and over 269,000 deaths in the U.S.
More than 88,000 people in the U.S. — an all-time high — were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, pushing the health care system in many places to the breaking point, and new cases of the virus have been setting records, soaring to an average of over 174,000 per day.
Deaths have surged to more than 1,600 per day, a mark last seen in May, when the crisis in the New York area was easing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local authorities have begged people not to travel and urged them to keep their Thanksgiving celebrations small.
“That’ll make sure that your extended family are around to celebrate Christmas and to celebrate the holidays next year,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said.
Around 900,000 to 1 million people per day passed through U.S. airport checkpoints from Friday through Tuesday, a drop-off of around 60% from the same time a year ago. Still, those have been some of the biggest crowds since the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the U.S. in March.
Last year, a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through U.S. airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving.
More Americans drive than fly during the holiday, but AAA has projected those numbers are also likely to be lower this year. How much lower the auto club has not said.
Many states and cities have adopted precautions. Travelers to Los Angeles, either by plane or train, were required to fill out an online form acknowledging California’s request that people quarantine for two weeks after arrival in the state.
The resurgence of the virus and the refusal of many people to wear masks or keep their distance from others have caused despair among health care officials and front-line workers.
“I’ll just to confess to you guys, I’m exhausted trying to convince folks to do stuff. It’s just going nowhere,” said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer.
Anne Moore, a 60-year-old woman from Chicago, flew to Albany, New York, to be with her daughter for the holiday. Her daughter is a senior at Dartmouth University, and Moore and her husband were worried about her driving back to Illinois by herself.
Before the spike, the family had planned to hold a Thanksgiving gathering of fewer than 10 people. But instead it will be just Moore, her husband and her daughter.
“I have friends who are alone. And I’m not inviting them. And I feel badly about that,” she said. “We’ll take a walk or something instead. But yeah, the three of us are isolating.”