Millions of Americans took to the skies and the roads ahead of Thanksgiving at the risk of pouring petrol on the coronavirus fire, disregarding increasingly dire warnings that they stay home and limit their holiday gatherings to members of their own household.
Those who are flying witnessed a distinctly 2020 landscape at the nation’s airports: plexiglass barriers in front of the ID stations, rapid virus testing sites inside terminals, masks in check-in areas and on board planes, and paperwork asking passengers to quarantine on arrival at their destination.
While the number of Americans travelling by air over the past several days was down dramatically from the same time last year, many pressed ahead with their holiday plans amid skyrocketing deaths, hospital admissions and confirmed infections across the US.
Some were tired of more than eight months of social distancing and determined to spend time with loved ones.
“I think with the holidays and everything, it’s so important right now, especially because people are so bummed out because of the whole pandemic,” said 25-year-old Cassidy Zerkle of Phoenix, who flew to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit family during what is traditionally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
She brought snacks and her own hand sanitiser and said the flight was half full.
She had a row of seats to herself.
“As long as you’re maintaining your distance, you’re not touching stuff and you’re sanitising your hands, people should see their families right now,” she said.
The US has recorded more than 12.7 million coronavirus infections and over 262,000 deaths.
I fully acknowledge that I have urged everyone to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel. I have shared how my family cancelled our plans for our traditional multi-household Thanksgiving celebration. (1/5)
— Michael B. Hancock 😷 (@MayorHancock) November 25, 2020
The country is still missing about eight infections for every one counted, according to a new government report on Wednesday.
Many people do not get tests, especially if they do not have symptoms.
More than 88,000 people in the US, an all-time high, were in the hospital with Covid-19 as of Tuesday, pushing the health care system in many places to the breaking point, and new cases of the virus have been setting records, soaring to an average of over 174,000 per day.
Deaths have surged to more than 1,600 per day, a mark last seen in May, when the crisis in the New York area was easing.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local authorities have begged people not to travel and urged them to keep their Thanksgiving celebrations small.
“That’ll make sure that your extended family are around to celebrate Christmas and to celebrate the holidays next year,” Kentucky governor Andy Beshear said.
But even Denver Mayor Michael Hancock flew to Mississippi to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and youngest daughter despite sending messages on social media and to city staff asking them to avoid travelling for the holiday.
He apologised, acknowledging that he went against his own public guidance.
“I made my decision as a husband and father, and for those who are angry and disappointed, I humbly ask you to forgive decisions that are borne of my heart and not my head,” Mr Hancock said.
About 900,000 to one million people per day passed through US airport checkpoints from Friday until Wednesday, a drop-off of around 60% from the same time a year ago.
Like families across America, our Thanksgiving looks different this year. But I am incredibly grateful for the ability to stay virtually connected to our loved ones so we can get this virus under control.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 26, 2020
Still, those were some of the biggest crowds since the Covid-19 crisis took hold in the US in March.
On Wednesday, the more than one million people screened at airports was the largest since the start of the pandemic.
Last year, a record 26 million passengers and crew passed through US airport screening in the 11-day period around Thanksgiving.
More Americans drive than fly during the holiday, and AAA has projected those numbers are also likely to be lower this year.
Many states and cities have adopted precautions.
Travellers to Los Angeles, either by plane or train, were required to fill out an online form acknowledging California’s request that people quarantine for two weeks after arrival in the state.
Thea Zunick, 40, boarded a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Florida to see her 90-year-old grandmother and her parents.
“We’ve all kind of decided like it’s worth the risk,” Ms Zunick said.
“But I wanted to make sure that all the efforts that I’ve made to stay healthy isn’t undone by other people’s carelessness.
“And absolutely, I know that I’m taking a risk by flying.
“I know that, but sometimes it’s necessary.”