Thanksgiving air travel is going to set 2020 records, and the confidence level for that can be adjusted up significantly after 1 million people cleared TSA security checkpoints yesterday. One million travelers (not just passengers, but employees as well) is still just 40% of 2019’s travel for the most similar day. Air travel has hovered around the high 30s and low 40s of last year’s numbers for some time. However it isn’t taking a plunge despite the record rise in diagnosed Covid-19 infections in the United States.
About a million infections are being reported weekly now in the U.S. With the nation’s test positivity rate rising, indeed doubling since the start of this wave, it’s likely that the numbers are much higher. Surely there are between 5 and 10 times as many infections as cases, despite increased levels of testing. The CDC is recommending people postpone travel and stay home. People are not doing that.
Crowds at Sky Harbor: The day after the CDC recommended people cancel their Thanksgiving travel plans, #azfamily viewer Ed Westerfield caught this scene of passengers waiting at their gates pic.twitter.com/r9gIhWlbek
— Max Gorden (@Max_Gorden) November 21, 2020
Air travel itself is fairly safe, and among the safer indoor activities (though the longer the flight, the greater the exposure risk). However in places with the greatest spread avoiding even less risky indoor activities may be prudent. TSA checkpoints, airport restrooms, gate areas and jetways may contribute to spread – even if aircraft HEPA air filters and downward airflow are protective.
Even though air travel itself may be safe, it brings the virus from one place to another. Not every part of the country is have equal levels of outbreak, although significant spread is happening in many places. Perhaps more importantly than the travel itself is the activities people undertake at their destinations. Large indoor gatherings that mix households are likely to contribute to spread. As I noted on twitter,
People plan to spend Thanksgiving with large groups outside their own households, yet say they're unwilling to fly the Boeing 737 MAX.
— gary leff (@garyleff) November 19, 2020
With the large numbers of people who will have already had the virus and retain some immunity, coupled with the introduction of vaccines and antibody therapies, the pandemic should be under control in the U.S. reasonably soon. We’re just a few months away from the worst of the crisis being behind us here. But it looks like it will be a rough few months.
Knowing that a vaccine is nearly here is going to make us all impatient. And goodness knows the past 8.5 months have been hard for many. But given how little time there is until it’s going to be safe to gather (in some form) it makes even more sense now to wait.
If the pandemic were likely to continue in its present form for years, it might make sense for some people to throw up their arms, live life and get exposed – and hopefully get some immunity to keep living life, after a couple of weeks of unpleasantness (though in the process potentially exposing others who won’t be so lucky). But since the amount of time left to deal with this for many of us seems short, it makes a lot more sense to avoid the virus for just a little longer.
We’re now at a place where intertemporal substitution makes a great deal of sense. We’ll travel less now, and travel more in the summer. We’ll go out to eat less now, and go out to eat more in the summer.
Put another way, I simultaneously cannot wait for travel to recover and also hope it waits until 2021 to do so.