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Like many families this year, the Rivers clan will throw out its normal holiday travel tradition to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t make an appearance at the Thanksgiving feast.
Gene Rivers of Tallahassee, Florida, says the normal routine of gathering the family at a ski resort northwest of Montreal for Thanksgiving and mid-December to mid-January won’t work because Canada and the United States shut the border on both sides to nonessential travel.
Plan B – trying to draw his three grown-up kids to join him and his wife in New York City – isn’t practical either because it’s in one of the states imposing a two-week quarantine on those coming from places with high rates of COVID-19 infections. Even if that weren’t the case, their youngest son, a college student in Connecticut, was instructed to steer clear of family gatherings until the year-end break to avoid bringing the virus back to campus.
“Seems the forces are all against us getting back together,” Rivers says.
Normally, the start of autumn is the time when would-be revelers map holiday plans and make travel reservations. This year, bringing families together indoors for Thanksgiving or the year-end holidays could be downright
dangerous, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, depending on who’s invited to a gathering, how close celebrants are to each other and where celebrations are held.
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More Americans are likely to cancel their holiday travel plans this year, eating separately, watching football games on TV being played in empty stadiums and opening gifts sent by delivery trucks.
A survey by research firm Morning Consult found that 47% of families say they will cancel holiday get-togethers. Almost half say they will shift from in-person celebrations to virtual.
Every family will have to make its own decision, weighing the risks against the opportunity to see loved ones.
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One element that could entice them to go ahead with their trips: relatively cheap airfares. A round-trip ticket on American Airlines from Los Angeles to New York, leaving Tuesday and returning Sunday during the peak Thanksgiving travel window, was offered at $418 round trip this week. Flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta on Southwest Airlines, leaving Tuesday and returning Saturday, was $267.
All major U.S. airlines require passengers and crew to wear face masks. (Photo: Brycia James, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The percentage of seats airlines fill on an aircraft has beenrunning in the low 30% range, according to Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group. Those percentages are so unprofitable that digital models that look to past customer behavior to set fares are thrown out of whack, says Peter Greenberg, host of “The Travel Detective” series on PBS stations and a syndicated radio show.
Not only are airfares a relative bargain for a holiday period, but airlines have been offering discounts on tickets purchased with frequent flyer miles to fill otherwise empty seats on flights.
“For the moment, if you book ahead … you’re going to find some great deals,” he says.
The larger question: Is it safe to go?
Greenberg says he’s convinced that airline travel is safe as long as passengers keep their masks in place and set the air nozzles above their seats to full blast. He recommends that travelers social distance at the airport, and if they stay at a hotel, have housekeeping drop off extra towels and pillowcases and keep cleaners and any other hotel staff out of their room during the stay.
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The airline industry says planes are entirely safe. Besides the mask requirements on all major U.S. airlines, there are enhanced cleaning procedures on aircraft. Air circulates 30 times an hour through HEPA filters on most planes, says Nicholas Calio, CEO of trade group Airlines for America, so there’s little risk of catching COVID-19 on a plane trip.
A pair of studies out this week raise questions about how easily COVID-19 can spread on long flights. Both pointed to possible spread from an infected person to passengers close by, although the studies are based on flights in March before the shutdowns in the USA and widespread adoption of mask-wearing.
If the distance to a family celebration is short enough, there’s always the option to drive instead of fly. That comes with its own hazards, such as possibly coming into contact with the virus at gas stations, restrooms or restaurants along the way.
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Now that more is known about preventing the spread of the virus, medical experts urge extreme caution over the holidays but don’t rule out family gatherings.
Family members who don’t normally live together should adhere to guidelines regarding masks and social distancing, says Dr. M. Kit Delgado, assistant professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
He admits that he fears families won’t heed the advice.
“I don’t have great confidence that everyone will adhere to these precautions at all times, especially when drinking alcohol and seeing loved ones you haven’t seen forever,” he says.
He considers large indoor gatherings to be medium- to high-risk for transmitting COVID-19. Celebrating the holidays outdoors, as weather permits, is better.
Dr. Otto Yang, a professor and associate chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles, says families with elderly members or those with compromised immune systems should skip the festivities.
“It’s kind of a case-by-case process. It depends on how much risk each of the family members has,” Yang says.
The CDC, in the guidance it issued this week for holidays, urges people to stick to household gatherings and, if guests are invited, keep a distance.
Travelers try to find solutions
Rivers and his wife want to meet up with their grown children and are working to find a way, even if it looks a little grim at the moment.
“We have hope. So we are planning on something happening, so we can be going as usual,” Rivers says. “And if we can’t, we will be having a Zoom holiday.”
Steve Kaufman of St. Louis finds himself in the same position after his grown offspring laid down the law.
“This year, our kids in Houston and Minneapolis have told us they won’t fly home, nor will they allow us to visit because of COVID,” he says.
Others feel more confident. John Nehls plans to fly from home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles to see his daughter. That’s a turnabout from decades as a frequent business traveler, he says, when he usually stayed home for the holidays.
“Booking now, I can fly round trip for $119 on American. How can you beat that?” he wrote in an email last week.
He says he is “quite confident” that flying is a low-risk proposition, especially given the stepped-up cleaning protocols and other precautions on airlines.
Kit Loudin of Grayslake, Illinois, ponders where he can go to try to follow the usual holiday regimen – a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean.
“Yes, I have my fears, but my lust for travel assuages them,” Loudin says. “Once the snow starts to fly, so do I.”
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