Is hol­i­day travel safe or should we skip it?

Sur­vey: Fam­i­lies split on at­tend­ing tra­di­tional get-to­geth­ers

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Chris Wood­yard

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.

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 in­per­son cel­e­bra­tions to vir­tual.

Ev­ery fam­ily will have to make its own de­ci­sion, weigh­ing the risks against the op­por­tu­nity to see loved ones.

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.

The per­cent­age of seats air­lines fill on an air­craft has been run­ning 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.

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.

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.

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 M. Kit Del­gado, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of emer­gency medicine and epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

He ac­knowl­edges 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.

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.

“For the mo­ment, if you book ahead ... you’re go­ing to find some great deals.” Peter Green­berg, host of “The Travel De­tec­tive” se­ries on PBS sta­tions and a syn­di­cated ra­dio show

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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