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Millions Of Americans Traveling For Thanksgiving, Ignoring CDC Advice

A traveler gets his temperature checked Monday while waiting to check in at Los Angeles International Airport. Americans packed airports over the weekend even as coronavirus cases surged and public health experts urged people to stay home.
Jae C. Hong
A traveler gets his temperature checked Monday while waiting to check in at Los Angeles International Airport. Americans packed airports over the weekend even as coronavirus cases surged and public health experts urged people to stay home.

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 Nationhe 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.