The COVID-19 pandemic will bring Thanksgiving holiday travel to its lowest counts in years, but millions of people are still ignoring advice from public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the current guidance advising against travel, AAA projects an estimated 2.48 million Illinoisans will head out to celebrate this year – a decline of nearly 15% from 2019.
However, Molly Hart, a spokesperson for the Chicago AAA, notes that projection was made last month, before additional mitigations went into place statewide.
“We really anticipate the number to be smaller than that,” said Hart, noting more travelers are opting to drive personal vehicles instead of taking planes or trains.
“At this time, with the pandemic and the rise of COVID-19, people are finding it more comfortable to drive a car rather than get on a plane this year,” said Hart.
But Gene Olson, director of Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, said some inaccurate beliefs may be factoring into that fact.
“The air mode is not what the problem is; it's probably just mixing populations around. That's the issue,” said Olson. “But a lot of people have a misconception that the airplane is a sealed up tube and you're breathing the same air for your whole flight, and that's not the case.
“The airlines have vastly stepped up cleaning routines inside the airplane, and also the air inside the airplane is recirculated and filtered. Fresh air is also exchanged into the airplane so that when you land, the air that's inside that airplane is not the same air as when you took off. It gets exchanged completely multiple times on a flight. So the airplane’s not the dangerous part; it's the person sitting next to you.”
Olson said it’s too soon to tell yet how many people are choosing to fly for Thanksgiving. He said November and December are typically slow months, with one busy week each month, and that the airport has seen about 50 percent of its normal traffic over the past three months.
“For example, last October we had just shy of 57,000 passengers and then this October, we were just shy of 28,000. Last year, in November, we had about 64,000 passengers, and so if we're somewhere around 26-27,000, I'm kind of guessing that's where the month is going to come in, just based on the number of flights and kind of what we've seen coming into the week.”
Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said just getting a negative COVID-19 test result doesn’t automatically mean you can travel safely, particularly if you’ve come in contact with someone who has the virus.
“There is no perfectly safe way, and the thing to recognize is that if you've been exposed you really should be in quarantine and not going anywhere for Thanksgiving,” said Hendrickson.
She said it may take up to a month before determining if the holiday turns into a super-spreader event.
“Right after Thanksgiving, you're going to see that first incubation period of 14 days, and then you're going to see anyone that may have been asymptomatic or not get tested, and then continue to spread it to the next cycle or the next wave,” she said.
Olson said the Peoria airport is taking several steps to combat the spread of COVID-19, with crews using antiviral cleaning agents on touch surfaces, installing plexiglass barriers at ticketing stations and rental car terminals, and adding floor markers to encourage social distancing.
Still, he admits it’s hard to balance a desire for people to take plane trips for Thanksgiving while the COVID-19 pandemic surges.
“It's kind of a tough situation for us because on the one hand, we depend on travel for our livelihood,” said Olson. “But on the other hand, you don't really want to encourage people to travel when the CDC and everybody else is telling you not to.”
Hart said there are some ways for people hitting the roads to make the trip safer.
“For those who are going to be traveling by car for the Thanksgiving holiday, we do recommend that they be sure to pack face masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizers, and also pack extra bottles of water and extra snacks to reduce the need to stop along their trip,” she said.
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