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Americans Reconsider Thanksgiving Travel Plans As Coronavirus Surges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Stay home for the holiday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made that strong recommendation today to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. While a traveler would face fewer traffic jams and less crowded airports this Thanksgiving, a huge spike in coronavirus cases has already caused many people to toss their holiday plans, as NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's usually a pretty simple decision. Aleta Nissen and her husband, Dave, and their 14-year-old daughter pack up the car and drive from their home in Bend, Ore., 3 1/2 hours south to Dave's mother's house. But this year...

ALETA NISSEN: We've been back and forth for about a month deciding whether it's really doable.

SCHAPER: On the one hand, it's a trip the Nissens take every year. And with the rapid spread of the coronavirus...

NISSEN: I'm more of the mind let's skip. Let's skip this year. You know, it's one year.

SCHAPER: But on the other hand, it's been a rough year and a long time since they've seen Dave's side of the family.

NISSEN: When I look at the desires of my daughter and my husband really wanting to connect with this part of the family, that's really why I'm willing to go forward.

SCHAPER: It'll be a small group gathering - just two households and six people total - but Aleta Nissen does have one condition.

NISSEN: I was the one who said, well, if we're going to do it, then I think the only way to do it would be all get tested beforehand.

SCHAPER: So if all test negative for COVID, the Nissens are going to travel, right?

NISSEN: It could change. It's changed multiple times since the month ago or so that we started talking about the option, and it could change again.

SCHAPER: And it appears millions of other Americans are also going back and forth about whether to travel for Thanksgiving.

JEANETTE MCGEE: Up to 50 million people may have plans to travel for the holidays, but we know not all of them are going to follow through with this plan.

SCHAPER: Jeanette McGee of AAA says its forecast of 50 million people traveling for Thanksgiving is down 10% from last year and could drop further.

MCGEE: We know not all of those people are going to travel. And that's because they're reading the landscape. They're watching COVID cases go up, and that's going to stop people from making that decision to hit the road.

SCHAPER: McGee says of those who are thinking of traveling, 95% of them will drive rather than fly or take a bus or train.

MCGEE: These trips are going to be shorter, both in distance and in terms of the number of days they're gone.

SCHAPER: Some airlines, including United and JetBlue, have added flights for Thanksgiving week, anticipating a little bump up in traffic. But overall, air travel will be down significantly from the 31 million people who flew over the holiday last year.

Nick Calio is with the industry group Airlines for America.

NICK CALIO: We did see an uptick in October. That has petered out. What's happened is, quite clearly, the news. You listen to the news every night and it's all about the surge in the virus, and it's depressing that pent-up demand.

SCHAPER: For those willing to fly, Calio insists that with stepped-up cleaning and disinfection procedures, hospital-grade air filtration systems and mandated mask-wearing, it is safe.

CALIO: You are safer in an airplane, flying in an airplane, than you are in a grocery store, in a bar or restaurant.

SCHAPER: Public health experts agree, to a point. Keri Althoff is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

KERI ALTHOFF: Although evidence does suggest air circulated in planes is not the biggest threat, crowded airports with lots of high-touch surfaces are high-risk.

SCHAPER: So if you must travel, Althoff says it's much safer to go by car traveling only with people from your household. But she says the trip itself may not present the greatest risk; it's large group gatherings indoors once you get to your destination, like a Thanksgiving dinner with people from several households. And that's why the CDC today is urging people to stay home and not travel for Thanksgiving to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and governors in several states are advising those who do travel to self-quarantine.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MOSES' "WINTER'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.