For years Interstate 35 between Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex resembled a large parking lot on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Motorists traveling each way only dreamed of reaching destinations on time.
But 2020 is a wild card, considering the uncertainties of COVID-19 and the warnings against large gatherings around turkey and all the trimmings. Toss in the continued construction along I-35 as a $341 million widening project continues, and this driving season could become one for the ages. Regardless, public health officials recommend residents celebrate Thanksgiving in-person only with the people they live with.
The AAA auto club predicts 50 million Americans will hit the roads over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, a 10% decline from last year. However, that prediction is based on mid-October modeling. With the dramatic spike in cases nationwide and locally that started last month and more public health warnings, AAA now anticipates travel will drop off even more than initially projected, according to a press release.
“The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” AAA Senior Vice President Paula Twidale said in the press release. “The decision to travel is a personal one. For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure.”
AAA predicts about 2.4 million Americans will travel by air, an almost 50% decline year-over-year.
American Eagle flies daily between Waco Regional Airport and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, serving as a feeder for American Airlines.
“Certainly with the infection rates really throughout the country we’ve seen a dampening of demand,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said at an airline industry conference and quoted by The Dallas Morning News. “It’s too soon to tell how deep and how long there may be a depressed environment, but we’ve seen some weakening of bookings.”
The largest U.S. carriers have reported losses of more than $20 billion the past two quarters. Passenger counts have dropped more than 60% from pre-pandemic levels, and many planes are flying half-full, The Dallas Morning News reported.
Motorists who do venture out will find gas prices a pleasant surprise.
AAA Texas reported Thursday the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded stands at $1.80, a penny less than on the previous Thursday and 44 cents less than on the same day last year.
But cheaper prices can be had in communities around the state, including Waco, where H-E-B in Woodway on Friday was asking $1.55 per gallon for regular unleaded, while the H-E-B at Park Lake Drive and North 19th Street had a $1.59 posting for a gallon of regular unleaded.
The Sam’s Club on East Waco Drive was asking $1.56.
GasBuddy.com reported 46% of participants in its annual Thanksgiving Travel Survey said their travel plans have been affected by COVID-19. When asked how their plans have been changed, 71% said they are staying home this year.
Five percent said they are not celebrating Thanksgiving because the coronavirus. Another 20% are celebrating Thanksgiving at a different location this year, and 11% are driving instead of taking other forms of transportation to their destination, according to a press release.
“Gasoline demand has continued to struggle as the coronavirus has kept Americans in their homes keys out of their cars, working and e-learning from home,” GasBuddy analyst Patrick DeHaan said in the press release. “But with positive outcomes from two vaccine trials, we’re beginning to see optimism return.”
Gas prices are creeping up in some places, he said.
“However, the survey results show continued anxiety from motorists even with the lowest Thanksgiving gas prices in years, highlighting the challenges we’re facing in this pandemic,” DeHaan wrote.
Any projection of holiday travel through Waco this year would be an educated guess at best, said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“If someone says they know, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Evilia said. “Are folks going to follow the advice of the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and health district and say they won’t travel for Thanksgiving? I don’t think anyone knows.”
Anyone traveling the interstate in and around Waco should watch for lane closures, Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Jake Smith said.
Crews plan to pave the I-35 northbound frontage road from Behrens Circle to North Loop 340 this week, and doing so will require they close the road and the northbound exit ramp, Exit 339, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Tuesda, Smith said in a press release.
Drivers will be directed to Behrens Circle, where they can use Business 77 to access North Loop 340. Drivers on the I-35 northbound mainlanes planning to use Exit 339 will be instructed to take the Craven Avenue exit.
Crews also plan to close all lanes of University Parks Drive where they cross under I-35 from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Wednesday.
This closure will accommodate work on the southbound I-35 overpass.
Signs will direct motorists to alternate routes, Smith said.
Is it safe to travel for the holidays? Medical experts share tips
Should you travel for the holidays this year?
Health and government officials are increasingly urging people to stay home and avoid nonessential travel.
Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado urged residents to avoid Thanksgiving gatherings, comparing the holiday tradition to playing "Russian roulette" with family members who are most at risk.
He called on those who plan to attend intergenerational Thanksgiving gatherings to begin self-quarantining on Nov. 13.
Canada's Thanksgiving celebrations, which take place in October, have spurred a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases.
"What we do in the coming days and weeks will determine what we get to do at Christmas," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in mid-November.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that travel increases the chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19. "Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others," the CDC says.
The agency has created travel risk guidelines that break down components of travel from transportation to lodging and personal contact, rating choices from "lowest risk" to "highest risk."
Pay close attention to the case counts in your destination, the CDC advises. The risk of infection increases in areas with high community transmission.
"If you do choose to travel, try to keep gatherings small and take precautions," such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene, said Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Who should skip it?
People who are especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness are safest staying home.
"Are you older, are you frail, do you have chronic underlying illnesses?" are the questions to ask, says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
People who are considering meeting up with vulnerable relatives or friends should really weigh the implications of introducing illness to them, Wu said.
"There are well-documented COVID-19 clusters associated with family gatherings, including ones that resulted in deaths," he said.
Are some locations safer than others?
Gatherings are likely safer in areas around the world where infections remain low, although the standard precautions still apply.
For example, in early October Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it might be possible to have a "relatively normal" Thanksgiving gathering in parts of the United States where infections are very low.
"But in other areas of the country ... you'd better hold off and maybe just have immediate family," Fauci told CNN's Chris Cuomo. As always, wear masks and keep gatherings small to reduce the risk of infection.
Cases have since spiked dramatically across the nation making gathering in most places riskier than it was just a month ago.
Getting together with people outside of your immediate household and mixing guests from different geographic areas raises your risk of infection.
Does testing provide protection?
Testing can help catch coronavirus infections before travel, Wu said,"but testing is not foolproof."
"It can be falsely negative, or just miss infections you are still incubating," he said. "You could certainly also get infected during travel and potentially infect others after that."
Testing can offer "a level of reassurance if the people who are attending are negative at the time they were tested," Schaffner said. "You still have to be cautious."
Would a vaccine make travel safe?
Even if a vaccine were widely available in time for the holidays, it would likely provide partial protection much like the flu vaccine, says Schaffner.
If it's 70% effective, then three people out of every 10 won't be protected, plus a sizable percentage of the population won't have been vaccinated yet.
It's not a "suit of armor," he says, and the other standard precautions would still apply.
Pfizer said in early November that the vaccine it is testing was more than 90% effective in preventing infection in volunteers. Government officials are working on complex distribution plans for the vaccine.
What's the safest way to get there?
Driving generally allows travelers more control of their interactions with other people than flying or other forms of communal transportation, the experts say.
The CDC rates "short trips by car with members of your household with no stops along the way" in its "lowest risk" category, next to staying home.
Minimizing contact when you get out of the car is key, Schaffner says. Mask up when you're outside the vehicle, make your stops few and brief and opt for drive-thru food over going inside a restaurant.
With air travel, "you're more at the mercy of what's happening around you," Schaffner said. Still, wearing masks, good hand hygiene and maintaining as much social distance as possible is important.
Flights with layovers are rated "highest risk" by the CDC.
Should you stay with family?
Staying in a rental house or cabin with your immediate household is a lower risk than staying in hotels or someone else's home, according to the CDC's risk assessment.
Schaffner sees hotels as offering more control of your environment than staying in a relative's home, provided you avoid close encounters in elevators and other public areas and skip restaurant dining in favor of takeout or room service.
Whether you choose to stay in someone's home "has a lot to do with who's the relative and how careful have they been," Schaffner said.
Anytime you're gathering in close contact with friends or relatives, it's important to discuss these things in detail beforehand: Is anyone at elevated risk for severe disease? What kinds of precautions and risks are guests and hosts taking day to day?
Schaffner knows people who have stayed in the homes of friends or relatives after carefully quarantining for a couple of weeks before visiting or receiving guests. That's the kind of safety measure that's good to consider and agree upon in advance.
Wu doesn't have a strict answer on whether staying with friends and family or in a hotel is safer. A number of factors come into play, he says, including your ability to safely distance. For stays in the same house with other people, "consider if the family you are visiting has been able to isolate and take precautions," he says.
Can you safely gather with people outside your household?
Even if you do stay in a hotel or rental home, chances are good that you'll want to gather with other households to celebrate the holiday season.
Schaffner has been to relatives' homes during the pandemic and they've been to his, but they've stayed far apart and worn masks and only stayed together for a couple of hours, he says.
Food is served, but they sit at the far ends of the dining room table and take their masks off only to eat and drink.
"It is prudent to keep the mask on during a family gathering, especially if indoors and you (or others) have risk factors for severe illness," Wu said.
Small, outdoor, socially distanced gatherings are safest. If you gather inside, choose an open, well-ventilated space.
"Large groups, especially if coming from different households or geographic locations, could increase the risk of infection," Wu said.
The very safest option? "Get a small turkey and stay at home," Schaffner says.
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