Millions of Americans are ignoring the advice of public health experts and traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 1.04 million people went through airport security checkpoints Sunday, the most since mid-March, and about 1 million more went through TSA checkpoints each day on Friday and Saturday.
The numbers are still less than half those for travelers who flew last year on commercial airlines the weekend before Thanksgiving, but this year's figures suggest airports are more crowded and planes fuller than they've been at any time since the pandemic began.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to stay home and not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
In an advisory issued Thursday, the CDC said, "Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year."
AAA had forecast that up to 50 million Americans would travel for Thanksgiving this year, but a spokesperson said that amid recent outbreaks of COVID-19 across the country, some people have been rethinking their plans.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has skyrocketed to all-time highs, averaging more than 170,000 a day, according to figures tabulated by Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center. More than 12 million people in the U.S. have been confirmed to be infected since the pandemic began, and more than 257,000 people have died from complications of the virus.
The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday on the CBS News program Face the Nation he worries that crowds at airports "are going to get us into even more trouble than we're in right now."
He added that new COVID-19 infections contracted over the Thanksgiving holiday won't become evident until weeks later, making it "very difficult" as the virus could spiral out of control heading into the December holiday season.
But people seem to be increasingly weary of pandemic-related restrictions on travel.
"Americans in our research are telling us they are tired of being at home," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, on a conference call with journalists Thursday. "They don't want to give up taking trips, and they also want to see their friends and family" for the holidays.
Even though the industry he represents is among the hardest-hit in terms of revenue and job losses due to the pandemic, Dow is urging people to follow the CDC's recommendation not to travel.
"Heed the guidance. Stay home," Dow said. "I'd rather have a little less travel now, to come back more quickly down the road."
But in the next breath, Dow said, he knows "people are going to travel. That's why we think it's so important ... to really get into people's minds how they must travel safely."
Dow's organization is urging those who travel to "first and foremost: wear a mask in public spaces. That needs to be universal at this point," he said.
He is also calling on travelers to practice physical distancing, to avoid touching surfaces others may have touched, to wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer, and to follow all local and state public health guidelines wherever they are.
Airlines and airports are taking extra precautions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including deep cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces in airports and in airplane cabins, placing markings on floors to help people remain at least 6 feet apart and mandating the wearing of face coverings or masks at all times.
Airlines also are doing electrostatic fogging to disinfect airplane cabins, and say their hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Not all would-be travelers are convinced though, with airlines reporting a recent increase in canceled bookings for Thanksgiving travel due to the nationwide surge in new COVID-19 cases.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Even though public health experts urged the public not to travel for Thanksgiving, many Americans are ignoring that advice. About a million travelers a day have streamed through the nation's airports since Friday. And those airports will likely get even more crowded this weekend. So what are airlines and airports doing to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19? And is it enough? Here's NPR's David Schaper.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For Christopher Parr (ph), the decision to travel from Reston, Va., to Chicago for Thanksgiving in the midst of a pandemic was agonizing.
CHRISTOPHER PARR: Yeah. It definitely felt like it was a risk. There's been quite a number of health concerns that have taken place with my family, a few emergencies that have taken place here. So we thought it was important to see one another.
SCHAPER: Parr says he went back and forth over the decision but felt he had to travel because of the family crisis. And he takes the risk quite seriously. He'll see just a few people over the holiday. And to reduce the chances of contracting COVID while flying, Parr is geared up.
PARR: So I'm wearing a face shield. And then under the face shield, the next layer will just be a regular surgical mask. And then the closest layer to my face will be the K95 mask.
SCHAPER: Others flying this week include college students on break, many of whom will finish the semester from home remotely, and travelers like Brian Rideau (ph), who is returning to Chicago from a long weekend away with his girlfriend to celebrate her birthday. He says their flight to Houston was half empty, but the return was nearly full. And that presented more of a risk.
BRIAN RIDEAU: I was a little bit nervous because, before, it was just me and her sitting next to each other. But now it's somebody else in that third seat. And, you know, you just don't know what precautions other people are taking. So...
SCHAPER: Because they traveled right before the holiday, Rideau says he and his girlfriend will now spend Thanksgiving at home alone. He gives the airline high marks for ensuring that the plane was clean and passengers practiced social distancing.
RIDEAU: United, they did a good job at making us feel safe. For the most part, just make sure we had our mask on, making sure we had plenty of hand sanitizer.
SCHAPER: While being crushed financially during the pandemic, airlines are desperate to show travelers that it's safe to fly. They're using electrostatic disinfectants. And they say their hospital-grade air filtration systems make sitting on a plane safer than eating at a restaurant or shopping at a grocery store. They're spacing passengers six feet apart while boarding and even removing passengers who refuse to wear masks. But while the flight itself may be relatively low-risk, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that other parts of the trip are not.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
ANTHONY FAUCI: The airlines are trying their best with the way they get the airflow to prevent that. But sometimes when you get a crowded plane, you're in a crowded airport, you're lining up. Not everybody's wearing masks. That puts yourself at risk.
SCHAPER: Now, airports have stepped up cleaning procedures that are frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces. They're also using floor markings to help space out passengers at check-in counters and security lines. And some airports even offer COVID-19 testing. Of course, such measures don't eliminate the risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus. And that's why even some in the travel industry, which is hemorrhaging billions of dollars and jobs, are urging those who don't have to travel not to. Roger Dow heads the U.S. Travel Association.
ROGER DOW: Heed the guidance. You know, stay home. I'd rather have a little less travel now to come back more quickly down the road.
SCHAPER: But Dow acknowledges that no matter what he and health experts recommend, people will travel anyway. So he's urging those who do to adhere to strict safety guidelines and wear a mask at all times in public.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.