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Holiday travel drops as Americans rethink a comforting ritual

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                The empty seating area near a boarding gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Wednesday.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The empty seating area near a boarding gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Wednesday.

Americans have agonized over Thanksgiving this year, weighing skyrocketing coronavirus numbers and blunt warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against gathering with family for a traditional, carbohydrate-laden ritual.

The United States reported more than 2,200 virus-related deaths Tuesday alone, the highest daily total since May 6. The country’s seven-day average for new cases has also exceeded 175,000 for the first time.

Around 27% of Americans plan to dine with people outside their household, according to interviews conducted by the global data-and-survey firm Dynata at the request of The New York Times.

Views on whether to risk Thanksgiving gatherings appear to track closely with political views, with respondents identifying as Democrats far less likely to be planning a multihousehold holiday.

Megan Baldwin, 42, had planned to drive from New York to Montana to be with her parents, but last week, she canceled her plans.

“I thought I would get tested and take all the precautions to be safe, but how could I risk giving it to my parents, who are in their 70s?” she said, adding that they were not happy with the decision.

“All they want is to see their grandkids,” she said, “but I couldn’t forgive myself if we got them sick. It’s not worth it.”

Others decided to take the plunge, concluding that the emotional boost of being together outweighed the risk of becoming infected, after a grim and worrying year.

“We all agreed that we need this — we need to be together during this crazy, lonely time, and we are just going to be careful and hope that we will all be OK,” said Martha Dillon, who will converge with relatives from four states on her childhood home in Kentucky.

The AAA has forecast a 10% overall decline in Thanksgiving travel compared with last year, the largest year-on-year drop since the recession of 2008. But the change is far smaller, around 4.3%, for those traveling by car, who make up a huge majority of those who plan to travel — roughly 47.8 million people.

About 912,000 people were screened by the Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday, which was 1.5 million fewer people than were seen on the same day in 2019, according to federal data published Wednesday.

Airlines are struggling from a dramatic decline in demand that has forced them to drop flights and make big capacity cuts, said Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry trade group.

“Currently, cancellations are spiking, and carriers are burning $180 million in cash every day just to stay operating,” she said. “The economic impact on U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public is staggering.”

Demand for travel by train is down more sharply, at about 20% of what it was last year, said Jason Abrams, a spokesman for Amtrak.

Susan Katz, 73, said she canceled plans to spend Thanksgiving with her daughter last Friday, after watching a monologue by Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host, describing her partner’s bout of coronavirus and her fear that it would prove fatal.

“Her emotion, Rachel Maddow’s emotion, made it so real, it just moved us,” Katz said. “I probably called her within a few hours of seeing that.”

Katz, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said she would spend the holiday alone with her husband. She is trying to decide whether to bother thawing a turkey breast.

Warnings from experts swayed Laura Bult, 33, to cancel her Sunday flight to St. Louis two days before she was scheduled to leave.

“Doing the small part of being one less person circulating through an airport felt important enough to me,” she said.

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