Thanksgiving journey 2020: Pandemic hangs over each choice

(CNN) – In a year of constant uncertainty, where decisions are carefully considered and often reversed, vacation travel is no exception.

On Friday, the number of travelers screened at security checkpoints at the U.S. airport topped 1 million for only the second time since March, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That’s still only 40% of the volume that was shown on the Friday before Thanksgiving a year ago.

Many tired Americans ready to join family and friends for Thanksgiving are faced with further risk calculation as they weigh last-minute plans to scrap trips or move on if Covid-19 cases rise.

Gail Duilio, a retired nurse in Portland, Oregon, has canceled her flight to Minnesota for vacation and her mother’s 93rd birthday.

“When I made the arrangements a month ago, I felt the risks and benefits were on the side,” she told CNN. This week the risks for her have tipped the scales the other way.

Travel agency AAA has announced that it expects travel to fall by at least 10% this Thanksgiving Day as coronavirus cases emerge, travel restrictions are postponed, and health and government officials urge people to stay home.

Airline crew members and travelers at Washington Dulles International Airport on November 19, 2020.

Daniel Slim / AFP via Getty Images

AAA predicts that nearly 48 million travelers will get to their destinations. This corresponds to a 4.3% year-over-year decrease in the number of people who visited the holiday season, which the AAA defines as Wednesday through Sunday.

Air travel is expected to see the biggest drop since Thanksgiving for a year, a drop of nearly 48%. According to the organization, only 2.4 million travelers will fly.

Julio Perez, a mechanical engineer from Palm Bay, Florida, is expected to be among the flight ends. He’s on a Delta flight to Atlanta on Monday to see his mother.

“I will take hygienic wipes with me in a zip-lock bag to clean surfaces and avoid touching the door handles at the airport. I will also be wearing a mask all the time. It’s good that the journey only takes 1.5 hours by flight.” he wrote in a message to CNN.

An “individual choice”

While air travel volume has been gutted by the pandemic, aviation officials expect the vacation could set a passenger record in the pandemic era.

The Transportation Security Administration predicts the Thanksgiving numbers will be “relatively consistent” with the end of the long Columbus Day weekend that flown over a million people on Sunday, October 18. This is the first time since March that passenger numbers have exceeded 1 million.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said he expected the busiest travel days to be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after it.

Aviation leaders called Thanksgiving Travel an “individual choice” in a briefing Thursday.

Passengers wait in line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on October 19, the day after the total number of passengers screened by the TSA in one day hit one million for the first time since March.

Passengers wait in line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on October 19, the day after the total number of passengers screened by the TSA in one day hit one million for the first time since March.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

“We don’t encourage people to travel. Do we want to see them travel? Yes, but only if it’s safe for them,” said Nick Calio, director of the Airlines for America trade association. “There are a variety of factors that play a role for every single traveler.”

Regardless of the means of transport, it is recommended to keep a social distance of two meters if possible. Air travelers should wear masks during their trip, and those traveling to their destination should always mask themselves when getting out of their car or coming into contact with anyone outside their immediate household.

Healthcare professionals urge those arriving by car to keep stopovers to a minimum and opt for alfresco dining or drive-through food to reduce interaction with other people.

AAA urges travelers to follow CDC guidelines for travel and review state and local travel restrictions, including testing and quarantine requirements.AAA expects 95% of travelers to arrive by car this year.

AAA expects 95% of travelers to arrive by car this year.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Tough choices

For some Americans, the vacation is just a layer of travel over Thanksgiving.

Tim Hinchliff’s father died in Minneapolis on November 16.

“I may or may not travel the 1,400 miles to get there for both the funeral and Thanksgiving,” said Hinchliff, who is based in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. “I’m thinking about driving, but it’s too far to drive right through, so I’d still have to stay in a hotel, eat out a few times, and pump gas.

“I suppose I could eat fast food, sleep in the car and wear gloves while gassing. I’m not sure right now,” he wrote in a message to CNN.

His father, John Hinchliff, was an excellent World War II paratrooper who died at the age of 99 after being in and out of hospice. Plans have been made for a funeral the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but new orders for congregations in Minnesota have challenged those plans.

CNN contacted Hinchliff again after the CDC issued its guidelines against Thanksgiving travel.

“I’m still in some kind of limbo. When the CDC hasn’t recommended a trip, I usually think that’s pretty enough for me, but this is my father’s funeral and they probably will anyway,” he said. “I have a very stubborn family.”

Hinchliff’s wife is scared and doesn’t want to go, but his siblings and relatives want him to be there. Some of his family members were exposed to a visit from Covid-19 to his father, who tested positive before he died.

Just before Christmas, many decisions about travel will be made for the next month as well.

Mary Church, a Seattle retiree, expects to hold on to her plans to fly to Arizona on December 20 to visit her family over the holidays.

“We agreed that we would all be tested more than once before our visit and after we return home,” she said. “I take all precautions to protect myself and others. I wear a mask, disinfect, etc.

“Right or wrong, people are just sick of it. We need something to look forward to.”

CNN’s Pete Muntean, Chris Isidore and Greg Wallace contributed to this report

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