Thousands of Mainers and millions of New Englanders are expected to travel for the upcoming holidays, despite repeated warnings from health officials that doing so could worsen a surge of coronavirus cases in Maine and the nation.
About 3.2 million people in New England are expected to travel at least 50 miles over the next two weeks, AAA Northern New England projected. The number of travelers is expected to be down 35 percent from the same period last year, the travel and insurance company said.
Thanksgiving travel this year in Maine was far lower than the year before, but holiday gatherings still contributed to sustained community virus spread the state continues to experience, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said a combination of factors, including holiday gatherings, congregating indoors and improvements to the agency’s reporting of test results have driven record-high daily COVID-19 case counts in recent weeks.
“Maybe on days 10 to 14 after Thanksgiving, much of what may have been driving that on those days was the Thanksgiving holiday; on other days it might have been process improvements or weather driving people inside,” Shah said.
Some Americans use the year-end holidays for longer vacations compared with the family gatherings traditionally associated with Thanksgiving, said AAA Northern New England spokesman Pat Moody.
“That will not be the case this year,” he said. “Public health concerns, official guidance not to travel, and an overall decline in consumer sentiment have encouraged the vast majority of Americans not to travel.”
Most of those who do travel – 2.9 million New Englanders – will do so by car, AAA predicts. About 1 million more people in the region are projected to travel for the winter holiday than did for Thanksgiving, according to the company’s predictions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against all nonessential travel over the holidays.
“Travel can increase your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19,” the agency said in guidance earlier this month. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
People who are sick or believe they have been exposed to the virus should quarantine and not travel, the CDC added. Those who have been in crowded places, used public transportation, attended large social gatherings or mass gatherings, or anyone traveling with them should delay their trip and make other plans, it said.
“You and your traveling companions – including children – may feel well and not have any symptoms, but you can still spread COVID-19 to family, friends and community after travel,” the agency said.
People who do travel should get a test for COVID-19 one to three days before starting a trip, and get tested and avoid nonessential activities for seven to 10 days after returning home.
In a Wednesday news conference, Gov. Janet Mills urged Mainers to do everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus, including putting off travel and staying away from holiday parties.
“We need everyone to wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands and avoid gatherings,” Mills said. “The biggest gift we can give each other this holiday season is not a present under the tree or a hug shared by a loved one. The best gift we can give, and the best gift we can receive, is the gift of health, the gift of life.”
Travel in New England is expected to be more curtailed than in the nation as a whole – a 35 percent decrease compared with a 29 percent decrease year over year. The steeper regional dip is due to tighter travel restrictions in the region than elsewhere in the country, said Moody, of AAA.
“The closer proximity of states and the fact that more of New England requires or advises quarantine when visiting nearby states means you don’t have the same options for day trips as other states where it is more likely you can visit friends and family on a day trip that exceeds 50 miles,” he said.
All nonessential visitors to Maine have to quarantine for 10 days after entering the state or receive a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours prior to arriving. New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states exempt from the restrictions.
Air travel to Maine has surged in the days before the year-end holidays. The Portland International Jetport saw more than 5,500 passengers last week, nearly 22 percent higher than the week before, according to jetport Director Paul Bradbury.
“Passenger throughput is up over last week as we approach the holidays, but I expect based on advance booking data that Portland Jetport will remain down 50 percent to 60 percent from our 2019 levels,” Bradbury said.
Nationwide, air travel was above 1 million passengers a day for three days last weekend, the highest number of weekend travelers since the pandemic began, the Washington Post reported.
Traffic on Maine roads has trended downward since late November, according to a weekly travel monitoring report from the Maine Department of Transportation.
State traffic is gauged by vehicle miles traveled as recorded at monitoring stations. Traffic on state roads hit a six-month low last week, according to transportation department data.
The Maine Turnpike Authority predicts almost 592,250 vehicle transactions at its toll plazas between Thursday and Sunday, an almost 24 percent decrease from the same period last year.
Actual traffic might be lower than expected, especially with a large wind-driven rainstorm forecast for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, said Maine Turnpike Director Peter Mills.
“This holiday in particular, the rain is all anyone needs not to get on the road,” he said. “I think that will tip people into abiding by the public health advice in terms of travel.”
Traffic projections are of limited help in predicting what impact holiday travel will have on the pandemic, Peter Mills said. While interstate travel might be down because of restrictions and warnings from authorities, that might not hold true for people visiting friends and relatives living nearby.
“Traffic won’t be as high as last year, but it is a lot easier for people to jump in the car and see someone who lives 20 or 30 miles away,” he said.