COVID-19 pandemic is not halting everyone's Thanksgiving travel plans

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A United Airlines employee assists a departing passenger at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on October 1, 2020 in Los Angeles. - Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Before noon on Monday, Jared Gorin was sitting by himself on a wooden bench at William H. Gray III 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, masked and waiting for the 12:05 back home to Connecticut, where his parents and sister are to gather for Thanksgiving.

He’d done everything he could think of to minimize the odds of bringing the coronavirus home to family.

The strategic consultant with Jefferson Health had been diligent about staying home days before the holiday. He got tested for COVID-19. He’s participating in a vaccine trial. And he deliberately booked a less-crowded train.

“It’s like a calculated risk, I guess,” said Gorin, 29, of Center City. “It’s important enough for me and my family to be together for Thanksgiving. We’ve all discussed it and agreed. I’m just trying to be as careful as I can.”

He had plenty of company, days before this Thanksgiving holiday like no other in memory. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the Philadelphia region, and federal health officials recommend staying home this year, many are still preparing to travel.

Traffic and ridership volumes may stay low as some forgo large holiday gatherings, but others heading to smaller celebrations this week are masking up and arming themselves with hand sanitizer between departures and arrivals at 30th Street Station and Philadelphia International Airport.

Public health officials are urging Americans to stay at home this Thanksgiving to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, and the message seems to be taking:

More than 80% of Pennsylvanians will stay home for Thanksgiving, with 40% who are doing so because of the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the American Automobile Association.

Travel boosts the chances of contracting COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises having small Thanksgiving gatherings with people living in the same household.

Those who are traveling, whether in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Delaware, mainly plan to get to their destinations by car, while smaller slivers will fly or take other form of travel, like a bus or train, according to AAA.

“Although Thanksgiving is typically a driving holiday, it should be noted that, since the beginning of COVID, those who have decided to travel this year have predominantly done so by car where they can have greater control over their environment and the ability to modify plans at the last minute,” Jana Tidwell, AAA spokesperson, said in a statement.

Even still, Philadelphia International Airport is expecting its busiest week since coronavirus-related lockdowns started in March. Compared to 2019, passenger traffic at PHL is down 63% for the year, as of Sept. 30, said spokesperson Florence Brown.

During the Thanksgiving travel period, typically the year’s busiest, traffic will be down 56% from last year, Brown said.

In 2019, 792,000 passengers moved through the airport, from the Saturday before Thanksgiving through the Monday after the holiday. The projection for this year is 351,000 passengers arriving and departing from Nov. 21 through Nov. 30.

Airport officials expect the highest volume of passengers on Wednesday and Sunday, with more than 55,000 travelers arriving and departing each of those days. More than 50,000 people are expected to come through PHL on Saturday.

Those estimates are bound to fluctuate this week, as travelers make last-minute decisions about whether to book a trip — or cancel one.

“Two trends we’re seeing at the airport this year are close-in bookings and close-in cancellations,” Brown said.

Pennsylvania public health officials issued an order last week, saying travelers should either test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours before entering the state, or else quarantine for 14 days once they arrive.

The airport requires people to wear masks inside the terminals. Signs throughout the complex instruct how travelers should form lines and keep a safe distance. The airport also encourages passengers to walk around before boarding, to prevent crowding in common areas.

“Come to the gate when it’s time for your flight, just so you can avoid being in that crowd of people at gates,” Brown said.

Amtrak can’t predict Thanksgiving-related travel patterns given “the unprecedented drop” it’s seen in ridership during the pandemic, said spokesperson Beth Toll, who said “business remains at about 25% of pre-COVID levels.” Last year, Amtrak saw more than 200,000 customers at 30th Street Station between Nov. 21 and Dec. 5.

SEPTA “doesn’t see the surge in holiday-related travel that Amtrak or the airlines would see in the days before,” said spokesperson Andrew Busch. All SEPTA services will run on a Sunday schedule this Thursday.

Last month, ridership on SEPTA buses, trolleys, Market-Frankford, Broad Street, and Norristown High Speed Lines were down about 70% from pre-pandemic levels. Regional Rail is running with about 85% fewer riders than normal.

Both SEPTA and Amtrak have put safety measures in effect to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including requiring face masks and enhancing cleaning. SEPTA is not using transit police to enforce its facial covering policy, while Amtrak could ban customers who refuse to cover up.

“Super safe,” Jamece Hackett, 32, of Washington, D.C., said of her Amtrak trip after getting off at 30th Street Station on Monday. “I had the whole row to myself on the train. There was no one in front or behind me either, so I felt good.”

Jessica Matluck, 44, of West Philly, who was traveling to New York on Amtrak said she feels the option “is a bit better than taking NJ Transit.”

“I just haven’t seen my family in so long,” Matluck said. “My sister’s due in April, and I want to see her pregnant. Like, one time.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer