Americans venture out for holiday travel in a test of containment
By RYAN BEENE AND ALAN LEVIN | Bloomberg | Published: May 22, 2020
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Americans are fleeing weeks of home isolation for beaches, parks and other leisure destinations over the Memorial Day weekend — and that has pandemic experts and businesses concerned about a spike in coronavirus cases.
Many states have begun to lift restrictions at the urging of President Donald Trump while travel and tourism businesses are seeing signs of life after nearly two months of near-zero demand. Yet those limits on public activity helped slow the spread of the virus, and a surge in tourism could mean trouble, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
"We should be worried about increases in covid-19 transmission," he said. "I do expect that we're going to see an uptick in coronavirus cases a week to two weeks after Memorial Day because of that increase in travel as well as because of the premature relaxing of social distancing in some states."
Memorial Day travel is still expected to be a fraction of previous years. The U.S. Travel Association anticipates consumers will spend just $4.2 billion on travel over the holiday weekend, a third of 2019 levels.
Yet there are signs of a revival. Airlines say bookings have recently begun to exceed cancellations for the first time since the pandemic caused demand to plummet in March. And some beach destinations have seen last-minute hotel bookings soar.
In North Carolina's Outer Banks, with roughly 100 miles of shoreline, bookings have jumped since a reopening of the area was announced in early May, said Lee Nettles, executive director of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. The organization represents the section of the Outer Banks within Dare County, which has seen a total of 22 cases with a single fatality as of May 21, according to the county health department.
Nettles credits the shutdown for that low case count, and said the heightened interest has brought with it concerns among businesses about the risk of visitors bringing fresh cases of the disease to a place that has seen remarkably few.
"Everybody is very concerned, particularly since many of our main feeder markets are areas that have seen high rates of incidence," Nettles said. "The downside of closing down and it being successful in that way is that it increased the anxiety of what is going to happen now that we're reopen and welcoming people back."
The Visitors Bureau has mounted a safety campaign to encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain social distancing while several businesses have to take additional steps to ensure safety, posting them on the group's website.
Reservations in Panama City and Fort Myers, Florida, more than doubled between April 26 and May 19 compared to last year while Honolulu — where a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors is strictly enforced — saw a 164% increase, according to Adara Inc., a cooperative that collects travel data from hundreds of companies.
The economic disruption wrought by the coronavirus even pushed AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association, to scrap for the first time its annual Memorial Day weekend travel forecast.
"With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend's travel volume is likely to set a record low," Paula Twidale, senior vice president at AAA Travel, said in a statement.
Although airline passenger counts have slowly risen since mid-April, they remain more than 90% below last year. In recent days, the number of people flying has exceeded 250,000 twice, the highest levels since March 24. But that's a far cry from the nearly 2.8 million people who boarded flights on May 28, 2019, the Friday before Memorial Day.
Airlines aren't expecting the normal surge traditionally seen on holiday weekends, according to the Airlines for America trade group. Still, there are signs more people will venture during the long weekend than during the doldrums of the last several weeks.
Bookings for Memorial Day weekend made between late April and mid-May were down 67% from the same period last year, an improvement from mid-March through late April, when bookings were 88% below 2019, according to data from Adara.
Some of that growth is a function of getting closer to Memorial Day on the calendar, but it's also a sign that people are becoming more willing to travel, said Carolyn Corda, Adara's chief marketing officer.
"I think it does reflect a certain willingness to get on an airplane," she said.
Southwest Airlines has added 119 flights over the long holiday weekend, in part to limit the number of passengers on each plane to allow for social distancing. While it's seen new bookings, some of that traffic is likely to be people who kept existing reservations instead of canceling them. The Dallas-based carrier anticipates its planes will be between 25% and 30% full in May compared to about 8% in April.
"It's the first busy weekend for summer travel that comes at a time when airlines are seeing modest enthusiasm, and many people are holding on to trips that have been long planned," said Brad Hawkins, a Southwest spokesman.
Delta Air Lines said it has seen a "little bit" of a bounce off the bottom, including an increase in domestic leisure bookings, and United Airlines has reported lower cancellation rates and "moderate" strengthening on U.S. and some international routes.
Weekend vehicle travel in the U.S. has rebounded to roughly 80% of pre-pandemic levels after reaching a low of 47% in early April, according to figures from traffic data provider Inrix. Weekend travel levels are also roughly on par with weekday volumes, suggesting more people are taking leisure trips during their days off, said Inrix transportation analyst Bob Pishue.
People are still avoiding long journeys, though some are going to places such as local or regional parks and other outdoor destinations closer to home, he said.
"People may be hesitant to travel a long distances, but they may not be so hesitant to not go to their local park or beach," he said.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans and spring break parties in Florida showed that the risk remains for large-scale transmissions of the virus, according to Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington's School of Public Health.
Cases in the U.S. have been rising more slowly the past few weeks, less than 2% daily since late last week. On April 2, U.S. cases rose 9.2% in 24 hours, the peak before a gradual decline in the rate of increase.
When asked if reopening holiday activities, such as travel, would lead to a growth in new cases, Godwin said "realistically, I think it probably will."Interacting with other people and moving around the country were both vectors for transmission earlier this year.
"It's not like it's all or none," she said. Cautiously resuming travel and outdoor activity, while following sensible protections and monitoring for possible outbreaks, makes sense as the nation tries to restart the economy and return to a more normal existence, she added.
People should stay away from any place with large crowds where they can't socially distance, or small groups where contact lingers for longer than 10 minutes. Those who are at higher risk of death from the virus — people older than 65 or anyone with health problems like lung disease, heart disease or diabetes — should consider even stricter social distancing.
"They should be socially isolating, including over this long weekend, which I know is going to be sad for a lot of people," Godwin said.