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During a phone call earlier this month with media outlets across the country, Dr. Cindy Friedman, chief of The Travelers’ Health Branch at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), urged Americans to avoid traveling.
“The safest thing to do is to postpone holiday travel and stay home,” Friedman said. “Travel volume was high over Thanksgiving, and even if only a small percentage of those travelers were asymptomatically infected, this can translate into hundreds of thousands of additional infections moving from one community to another. … We are trying to reduce the number of infections by postponing travel over the winter holiday.”
State health officials across the nation have issued similar recommendations, including in California, where last month the state’s director of public health urged residents to “avoid non-essential travel to other states or countries” and asked those arriving — and returning — to California to “self-quarantine for 14 days.”
We are trying to reduce the number of infections by postponing travel over the winter holiday.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said calls by state and national health officials to avoid travel in December have had a substantial impact on the wholesaler’s business.
“We’re tracking 22 states that now have travel restrictions in place,” Richards said. “They’re all a little bit different — some are statewide, some are regional, but there’s no question it’s having an impact on holiday bookings for 2020. … Our Hawaii call volume is down 70% this week.”
Regina Tait, owner of the TravelCom Travel Agency in Huntington Beach, Calif., said her business during December was not great to begin with, but new restrictions announced by California’s governor in recent weeks have resulted in cancellations. And one of Tait’s clients booked on a vacation to Mexico Dec. 17 recently postponed the trip over concerns about quarantining and missing work when she returned.
“She can’t afford to quarantine for two weeks when she comes back,” Tait said of her client. “And it was a family trip, and her grown kids need to go to work, too.”
Even so, Tait noted that not all her California-based clients have decided to postpone or cancel vacations scheduled for later this month. But a broad demographic pattern became apparent when she looked over her agency data.
“About 60% percent of the people are still going, and 40% aren’t,” Tait said of her December bookings. “People that seem to be moving plans are more elderly and concerned about the virus. And the clients that have stayed on the books for December are pretty seasoned travelers that have already traveled during the pandemic.”
David Hu, president of Classic Vacations, said the luxury supplier has been focusing much of its efforts on bookings for next year, but the company has seen some of its short-term trips in 2020 rescheduled in recent days. Other folks are, however, sticking with their original travel plans, he said.
“I’m not sure what the compliance is with the orders,” Hu said of COVID-19 guidance issued by state officials. “I think the segment that is predisposed to adhere to the orders will probably do so, and those who are not, won’t. … People are still traveling. We’re still seeing people hold their reservations, but there are people who are rescheduling.”
I think the segment that is predisposed to adhere to the orders will probably do so, and those who are not, won’t.
Dr. Timothy Brewer, a UCLA professor of infectious disease and epidemiology, said many health officials have instituted the far more restrictive policies because of the alarming rate of infection in California and across the country.
“We’re clearly much worse off than we were back in the beginning of November or middle of October,” Brewer said. “You’ve seen in Los Angeles County and the state as a whole — and in fact in the country as a whole — an almost exponential growth in COVID-19 cases since October. It’s been nonstop going up, and that’s putting huge strain on our healthcare capacity and our public health systems.”
Brewer noted some California counties have exhausted their ICU capacity, and others are now stretched so thin that shifting healthcare professionals around the state to help is no longer an option. California was averaging about 3,000 new cases a day in October, according to Brewer, who said that number is now closer to 20,000 a day statewide.
“As bad as it is here, California is actually doing better than much of the country,” Brewer said. “Our case rates are about 60 per 100,000 … but compare that with North and South Dakota. They’re both over 100 cases per 100,000 people, and Minnesota is up around 100 cases per 100,000.”
Ted Blank, the host agency manager at Minneapolis-based Travel Leaders’ Market Square Travel, said long-haul domestic trips and international vacations aren’t traditionally a big seller in the upper Midwest over the holidays, but he noted the regional, family-focused travel Minnesotans typically prefer in December is definitely down this year.
“We’ve seen more people deferring plans,” Blank said. “They’re not going to visit their family this year.”
Blank said, however, that he has noticed another trend among many of the folks who have decided to go ahead and take trips this year.
Usually, you see on Facebook pictures of family gatherings, but I think if folks are traveling, they’re keeping it on the down low.
“People who are traveling are keeping it pretty quiet,” he explained. “Usually, you see on Facebook pictures of family gatherings, but I think if folks are traveling, they’re keeping it on the down low. … I think there’s a fear you might run afoul of some government restriction and get in trouble. I think there’s a fear of employers who may have policies in place that prevent employees from traveling, and I also think it’s a fear of social media shaming.”
Ray Snisky, group president of Apple Leisure Group (ALG) Vacations, said his company saw a spike in vacation cancellations a few weeks ago, but activity has since normalized, and ALG is now “exceeding our forecast with close-in bookings.”
“Internationally, we are seeing the largest market share of business continues to go to Cancun, followed by the Dominican Republic, Los Cabos and the rest of Mexico’s beaches,” Snisky said. “Domestically, it has been Las Vegas and now Hawaii with its reopening.”
Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, who is also a practicing emergency room physician, said the Aloha State is paying close attention to the dramatic COVID-19 case surge on the U.S. mainland. But Green said the destination has no plans to suspend its current pretest plan for visitors, which allows travelers who provide proof of a negative test — taken no more than 72 hours before departure — to bypass Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.
“There will of course be fewer travelers because of the decision the California government made,” Green said. “California represents 38% of all travelers to the state of Hawaii. We were expecting a significant increase over the holidays, and now that number will certainly drop.”