At this time last year, South Carolinians thinking about where and how to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday were considering the usual factors: gas prices, airfares, travel times.
Now, people are making choices about whether to follow through with holiday plans — and if they do choose to travel, what precautions they’ll take — based on the risks of getting or spreading COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control included reminders in its holiday guidelines that any kind of travel will increase the likelihood of contracting the virus. Staying at home is still “the best way to protect yourself and others.”
With coronavirus cases rising rapidly nationwide, health officials have echoed that refrain, and some states are tightening restrictions.
But that doesn’t mean Americans won’t board planes or hit the road this week. Hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians are expected to take trips, leaving many with questions about how to address those risks.
Who is traveling?
Estimates for how many Americans will travel this Thanksgiving vary pretty widely. The travel marketing research firm Longwoods International, which has put out 24 rounds of surveys during the pandemic, found through its samples that slightly more than half of Americans plan to stay at home this holiday season.
AAA anticipates a roughly 10 percent decrease in travel compared with 2019. While that’s the biggest single-year drop since the Great Recession, it still leaves about 50 million Americans planning Thanksgiving trips.
But the actual number of Americans who head out of town this week — like so many travel-related metrics in 2020 — will depend on last-minute decisions. The “wait-and-see travel trend” that’s prevailed this year continues, AAA notes.
People who do plan to travel 50 miles or farther from home are overwhelmingly choosing to drive, most surveys show. In South Carolina, AAA projects the number of people traveling by car will be down by just a few percentage points while air travel may be nearly halved, totaling about 29,000 fliers statewide.
Travel site TripAdvisor concluded from its survey that older adults are much less likely to be leaving home this holiday. The number of baby boomers who said they’ll be hitting the road dropped to 29 percent from 51 percent.
How safe is traveling?
Any form of travel comes with inherent risks, said Dr. Danielle Scheurer, chief quality officer for the Medical University of South Carolina.
“This is so hard,” Scheurer said. “People want to see their families, they want comfort. These are just really hard decisions for people to make.”
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has advised that, for those who must travel, short trips by car with members of your household and no stops along the way are considered “low risk.”
The risks are going to be higher for those who fly, Scheurer said, because it’s more difficult to stay at least 6 feet apart from others. That can be true during the plane ride if seats aren’t left empty but also during boarding, at the airport gate, or in a rideshare or taxi on the way to the airport.
Bus stations, train stations, public transport, gas stations and rest stops are also all places where travelers can be exposed to the virus, the CDC warns.
Getting into a vacation mindset can lead to complacency when it comes to mask-wearing or social distancing. If a travel experience “feels normal,” that probably means it’s not safe, Scheurer said.
What precautions should travelers take?
South Carolina health officials recommend that individuals get a COVID-19 test before they travel. While a negative result in no way negates the need to take precautions like wearing face masks and hand washing, it can help “catch those people who have the virus and don’t know it,” Scheurer said.
People should get tested “as close to their departure as possible,” Scheurer said, so it’s important they ask about turnaround times before choosing a location and date for a COVID-19 test. Some states are also requiring negative results to enter, so travelers should check the specific guidelines for their destinations.
For flyers, a well-fitting face covering will be essential.
A mask’s effectiveness is limited by how well it stays in place, covering the nose and mouth during the entire flight and during all time spent in an airport or a rideshare or taxi. Scheurer said traditional surgical masks work well, and tend to fit comfortably, making them a smart choice.
Another consideration, the CDC says, is the possibility of contracting the virus from high-touch surfaces. Travelers may want to pack their own disinfectant to wipe down armrests on a plane and door handles in a hotel or at a friend or family member’s home.
Since indoor dining is “one of the highest-risk activities,” Scheurer recommends either avoiding eating at the airport or opting for a grab-and-go option that can be taken to an uncrowded area.
Will SC airports be busy?
While all of the Palmetto State’s major airports expect traffic to increase over the holiday, passenger volumes could be half of what they were last Thanksgiving.
David McMahon, the Transportation Security Administration’s federal security director for South Carolina, said Charleston International, the busiest airport in the state, will likely see about 50 percent of its pre-COVID-19 passenger count during the holiday.
He pointed out that Charleston has been averaging 3,000 to 3,500 passengers a day recently on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
“This past Sunday was over 4,000 and Monday was almost 4,000,” McMahon said. “I think that’s where we will level off through Thanksgiving.”
McMahon said he believes Myrtle Beach will be up, too, but thinks Columbia and Greenville will see less of a jump.
The airports in the capital and in the Upstate have seen similar drops in volume leading up to the holiday — year-over-year decreases of more than 60 percent.
At Myrtle Beach International, the gap between pre-pandemic passenger counts and current volume is closing more quickly. From Saturday through the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the number of scheduled departing seats is down 5 percent compared to the same figure from 2019, according to airport officials.
Leisure destinations like the Grand Strand have seen stronger tourism recoveries than places that rely on business travel. For the last several months, that airport has outpaced national averages.
Myrtle Beach, along with Charleston, was spotlighted on a Thanksgiving-related TripAdvisor travel ranking of domestic destinations with the best recovery rates. They ranked eighth and ninth, respectively.
October was Charleston International’s best month since March. Nearly 185,000 passengers traveled through the airport, about 33,000 more than in September.
Charleston is expecting that, by the end of the year, just under 2 million airline passengers will have arrived and departed from its terminal. Last year, a record 4.87 million passed through.
Airport safety measures
If the Thanksgiving holiday is the first time since the start of the pandemic that some South Carolinians board a plane, they’ll find numerous changes once they enter an airport, regardless of where they’re going.
All of the state’s major airports say they’ve increased their cleanings in high-touch areas and restrooms, installed clear plastic shields in some places and require that their staffs wear face coverings.
In Charleston, TSA officials recently emphasized the new practices put in place to reassure passengers. Instead of handing identification cards to security officers, travelers will insert them into a machine. A new three-dimensional scanning system will allow flyers to leave laptops and liquids in their bags, cutting down on the number of items being handled during the screening process.
The airports in Columbia and Greenville installed more hand sanitizer dispensers, and Columbia is giving travelers free face masks.
Myrtle Beach announced earlier this month that its airport was the eighth in the world to earn “GBAC STAR” accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of a trade association for the cleaning industry. Facilities with this title are “able to demonstrate that correct work practices, procedures and systems are in place to prepare, respond and recover from outbreaks and pandemics,” per the group’s description.
While air carriers are largely enforcing mask-wearing on planes, rules inside the terminal can differ. At Charleston International, for example, face coverings are required. The airport in Greenville advises that people are “strongly encouraged” to wear their masks in public spaces.
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