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Staggering map shows nearly 7,000 Thanksgiving flights as 6.3M Americans take to the skies

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Thanksgiving travel is far exceeding initial estimates, as millions of pandemic-weary Americans take to the skies, roads and rails to reunite with their families despite dire warnings from public health officials in the coronavirus pandemic.

At noon on Tuesday, data from FlightRadar24 showed 6,972 planes crisscrossing the U.S., slightly down from last year but even more than at the same time and day in 2018. The U.S. flights on Tuesday accounted for 65 percent of worldwide planes in the air, up from less than half each of the last two years. 

Nearly a million people have traveled by plane on every day since the holiday travel season began on Friday, according to screening data from the Transportation Security Administration.

Based on that data, an estimated 6.3 million Americans will travel by plane for Thanksgiving, blowing past the AAA estimate of 2.4 million issued earlier this month. AAA also projected 48 million would travel by car, and 350,000 by train, just a 10 percent overall decline from last year. 

It comes as the pandemic surges across the country, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pleading with Americans not to travel for the holiday, in order to limit the spread of the virus. 

On Monday, the seven-day rolling average of daily coronavirus deaths nationwide topped 1,500 for the first time since May 14, according to CDC data. 

At noon on Tuesday, data from FlightRadar24 showed 6,972 planes crisscrossing the U.S.

CHICAGO: Travelers pack the security checkpoint at O’Hare’s Terminal 1 on Tuesday as millions take the the skies

NEW YORK: Amtrak passengers wait in line at New York Penn Station on Monday, toting baggage for their holiday travel

CHICAGO: Travelers take to the roads ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday

The Transportation Security Administration said it has screened nearly 1 million passengers daily since Friday

The crowds are only expected to grow. Next Sunday is likely to be the busiest day of the holiday period.

To be sure, the number of people flying for Thanksgiving is down by more than half from last year because of the rapidly worsening outbreak. However, the 3 million who went through U.S. airport checkpoints from Friday through Sunday marked the biggest crowds since mid-March, when the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the United States.

Many travelers are unwilling to miss out on seeing family and are convinced they can do it safely. Also, many colleges have ended their in-person classes, propelling students to return home.

Laurie Pearcy, director of administration for a Minneapolis law firm, is flying to New Orleans to attend her daughter’s bridal shower and have a small Thanksgiving dinner with her son.

‘I don’t want to unknowingly make anyone sick. But I also don´t want to miss this special event for my only daughter,’ she said.

Stephen Browning, a retired executive from Tucson, Arizona, will be flying to Seattle for Thanksgiving with his sister. The celebration usually has up to 30 people; this year only 10 are coming, and everyone was asked to get a coronavirus test. He doesn’t plan on removing his mask to eat or drink on the flight.

‘This is my first flight since December 2019, so yes, I have concerns,’ he said. ‘But I think most airlines are acting responsibly now and enforcing masks on all flights.’

DENVER: Travelers wearing protective face masks go through security before boarding a flight at the airport on Tuesday

DENVER: Air travelers walk after departing a flight at the airport on Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving Day

DENVER: Family members wearing protective gear reunite with a loved one at the airport on Tuesday

ATLANTA: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was busier than usual on Tuesday as a result of Thanksgiving travel

ATLANTA: Travelers pass through plexiglass COVID-19 barriers inside the security checkpoint inside Hartsfield-Jackson

LOS ANGELES: Travelers are screened and have their temperature checked by airline employees at LAX on Tuesday

CHICAGO: Motorists travel south Tuesday along Interstates 90 and 94 ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel or spend the holiday with people outside their household.

New cases of the virus in the U.S. have rocketed to all-time highs, averaging more than 170,000 per day, and deaths have soared to over 1,500 a day, the highest level since the spring. The virus is blamed for more than a quarter-million deaths in the U.S. and over 12 million confirmed infections since March.

‘There is so much community transmission all over the United States that the chances of you encountering somebody that has COVID-19 is actually very, very high, whether it’s on an airplane, at the airport or at a rest area,’ said Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious-disease epidemiologist for New York City hospitals.

The nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CBS´ Face the Nation that people at airports ‘are going to get us into even more trouble than we´re in right now.’

The message may be sinking in for some.

Bookings in 2020 are down about 60 percent from where they were this time last year. Thanksgiving reservations were ticking upward in early October but fell back again as case numbers surged. 

Since airlines have made it easier to cancel tickets, there could be a rash of cancellations closer to the holiday, said John Elder, an adviser to airlines from Boston Consulting Group.

CHICAGO: Travelers take to the roads ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday

MILWAUKEE: Passengers collect baggage at General Mitchell International Airport two days before Thanksgiving

NEW YORK: Thanksgiving travelers line up in Penn Station during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday

NEW YORK: Thanksgiving travelers board a train in Penn Station  as they make their way out of the city on Tuesday

In 2019, a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through U.S. airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving. This year, the industry trade group Airlines for America isn’t even providing a forecast because things are so uncertain.

Because of tighter restrictions by many governments, air travel in other parts of the world has, in contrast, come to a near standstill. In Europe, traffic between countries was down by 83% in September from a year earlier, and that has only worsened since then because many countries imposed new limits.

Alejandro Zuniga and his fiancee, Megan Muhs, who live in Costa Rica, thought briefly about flying to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving to see Muhs´ family but decided against it. They also nixed a trip to the U.S. in December.

‘No part of a major international trip seems safe at this point,’ Zuniga said. The pair plans to make video calls to family and stream the Detroit Lions football game on Thanksgiving Day.

Josh Holman and his family were planning to fly to Lake Tahoe and spend Thanksgiving with his brother, who lives in San Francisco, and his parents, who live in North Dakota. But they scrapped those plans.

‘I see it as my civic duty not to spread this virus further,’ said Holman, an assistant county prosecutor who lives outside Detroit.

ATLANTA: Long lines of cars were spotted outside Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Monday

NEW YORK: Long lines formed at the Delta check in counters at New York’s JFK airport on Monday 

LOS ANGELES: Passengers wait to check in at Tom Bradley international terminal at LAX airport on Monday

More people tend to drive than fly over Thanksgiving, but even car travel is expected to see a drop-off, according to AAA. 

Based on surveys in mid-October, the association was expecting 47.8 million people to drive to Thanksgiving gatherings, down 4 percent from last year. But AAA said the drop could prove to be even bigger, given the worsening crisis.

Brad Carr and his wife, retirees who live in Griffin, Georgia, debated whether to drive 35 miles north to his son’s house for Thanksgiving and eat at a separate table on the porch. But after the CDC’s announcement, they decided to stay home. Carr’s son will deliver their meal ‘a la Uber Eats,’ Carr said.

Those who do gather should eat outdoors, wear masks, stay 6 feet apart and have one person serve the food, the CDC said.

That´s the plan for Juliana Walter´s family. Walter, a student at the University of Tampa, plans to get a coronavirus test and then drive home to Maryland. Her parents have rented tents and outdoor heaters and will host up to 30 masked family members for Thanksgiving dinner.

The holidays close out a bleak year for U.S. travel. Travel spending is expected to drop 45 percent from 2019 levels, to $617 billion, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.

Canceling Thanksgiving trips is painful for many families.

Kelly Kleber usually flies from Seattle to her hometown of Tucson, Arizona, to spend the holiday with her parents. They have a picnic to celebrate the life of her sister, who died on Thanksgiving in 2015. This year, Kleber is sending her parents a portrait of her sister and plans a video call on Thanksgiving.

‘It´s going to be hard being away from family this year,’ she said.

The CDC issued guidance late last week strongly recommending that Americans do not travel during the Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as cases, hospitalizations and death spike across the country. 

The number of new cases nationally, which have been surging for weeks, increased by 13 percent last week. In North Dakota, the hardest hit state on a per capita basis, new cases increased decreased by 6.4 percent last week compared to the previous seven days. South Dakota, which is currently the third worst state for cases per capita, also saw its infections decline 23 percent last week

The US recorded its biggest weekly rise in COVID-19 deaths since August, increasing 32 percent from the previous week to average about 1,500 people per day. The majority of states saw at least a 10 percent or higher increase in deaths last week compared to the previous seven days. The Midwest was among the hardest-hit states

Meanwhile, state and local governments are issuing new restrictions, anticipating an even bigger surge in the virus surrounding holiday gatherings.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to crack down on people who violate the state’s mandatory travel quarantine orders when arriving in New York, saying there will be pre and post Thanksgiving blitzes and fines of up to $1,000 for those who violate it. 

Under New York’s travel quarantine order, people arriving in the state need to have a negative COVID-19 test three days before arriving, isolate for three days and then test negative again. If they don’t have the two negative COVID-19 tests, they are required to quarantine for 14 days. 

De Blasio also said there will be increased personnel confirming if travelers have filled out the out-of-state traveler forms at airports, train stations and bus stops across the city before and after Thanksgiving.

He said the sheriff will also conduct car and bus spot checks. Currently, the National Guard is helping to screen passengers arriving at the various airports by ensuring they all complete the traveler forms. 

De Blasio said that people who are caught not quarantining or refuse to do so will be fined up to $1,000 for every day they break it. 

BROOKLYN, NYC: Long lines form outside a CityMD on Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Tuesday morning as people gather to get COVID tests before holiday travel

BROOKLYN, NYC: Dozens of people line up outside a CityMD on Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, as coronavirus cases continue to surge across New York

BROOKLYN, NYC: One person prepares to be in it for the long haul as she parks up a portable chair in line outside a CityMD in Bushwick Tuesday morning

In Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak tightened restrictions on casinos, restaurants and private gatherings beginning Tuesday. 

In California, where most counties are under a curfew, Los Angeles County officials will prohibit in-person dining for at least three weeks, and a judge on Monday denied a request to temporarily restore indoor service at restaurants and gyms in San Diego County. 

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts warned that he could impose tighter social-distancing restrictions before Thanksgiving if hospitalizations continue to rise.

Sisolak, who has avoided tightening mandates throughout the fall because of the potential damage to Nevada’s tourism-based economy, said the trends led to an ‘inescapable conclusion.’

‘We are on a rapid trajectory that threatens to overwhelm our health care system, our front-line health workers and your access to care. So it´s time to act,’ said Sisolak, who recently contracted COVID-19.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Monday issued an executive order authorizing the state health department to order hospitals and emergency departments to transfer non-virus patients and to cease admitting new ones to deal with the influx of coronavirus cases. 

In Washington state, elective procedures such as joint and heart valve replacements and some cancer surgeries could be postponed to make room for coronavirus patients, said Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer. 

SAN FRANCISCO: Travelers wearing masks check in at United desks at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday

CHICAGO: A traveler passes through a sign announcing travel orders in O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday

WASHINGTON DC: Travelers check in at Washington National Airport on Tuesday, two days ahead of Thanksgiving Day

Utah and Vermont have banned all social gatherings. So have local governments in Philadelphia and Dane County, Wisconsin. In Kentucky, no more than eight people from two households are permitted to get together; in Oregon, the gathering limit is six. 

Experts say that transmission through Thanksgiving travel and gatherings could put greater stress on overburdened hospitals and lead to an even bigger spike in sickness and death over the holidays.

‘When this started in early March, we weren’t staring at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we didn´t have the disease reservoir that we have. And that, to me, is the biggest concern in the next few weeks,’ said Dr. David Rubin, the director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

He called the risk of a Thanksgiving spike ‘extremely high.’

Kim Collins is among those planning a slimmed-down Thanksgiving. In a typical year, Collins would have as many as 20 people at her home in South Orange, New Jersey. This year, her extended family is staying put. 

‘My husband’s having a hard time with the fact that his mom, who’s on her own, won’t be here,’ she said.

But Collins wasn’t optimistic that others would be so careful. She said plenty of people are going through ‘mental gymnastics’ to justify their holiday get-togethers. ‘I think that a lot of people aren’t great at the honor system,’ she said. 

Virginia’s largest school district reports 83% surge in F grades 

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