The Centers for Disease Control warned Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving, but we chose to travel…more so than even last year. What do we make of this stubborn refusal to stay home, if anything at all?
USA Thanksgiving Travel Higher In 2020 Than 2019
Despite warnings to stay home to slow the spread of the pandemic, millions of Americans traveled over Thanksgiving. November 29th was the busiest air travel day since the pandemic started with 1.2 million travelers. But simply comparing that to the 2.9 million travelers who traveled on the same day in 2019 would be quite misleading. Bloomberg reports that travel was up in 2020 versus 2019 in 80% of counties across the United States. Using mobile phone location data, 22% of Americans were not at their residence on Thanksgiving Day. About 1/8 Americans traveled more than 30 miles away from their home. Those in the Northeast and West were most likely to travel while the South saw the greatest influx of visitors.
What Explains Our Urge To Travel During The Pandemic?
We can debate the responsibility of travel during this time (like the debate between Chris McGinnis and Gary Leff earlier this week). But I’m looking more toward the psychology of travel. Did we ignore the risk, reject the risk, or do we have so much cabin fever built up that we simply couldn’t control ourselves?
I was home for Thanksgiving, though I did go to Santa Barbara for a couple days over the Thanksgiving weekend. And I cannot speak for others, but for me it was clear: there were too many distractions at home and we wanted to get away to spend some quality time together as a family. We kept to ourselves outside and in the pool, washed our hands often, dined outdoors, and wore facial coverings.
Admittedly, the trip was not a necessity. But we also did not come into contact with anyone who was not wearing a mask. In fact, the only people who got close were 1.) the checker at Trader Joe’s (grocery store) who was separated by plexiglass 2.) two baristas at the coffee shop, also separated by plexiglass, 3.) the check-in agent at the hotel, also separated by plexiglass, and 4.) our waiter at breakfast, who wore a face shield in addition to a mask. So did we actually put anyone in danger or subject ourselves to danger?
This year, we had a small Thanksgiving gathering of immediate family…much smaller than in past years. Usually we spend the entire afternoon and evening together and invite friends who do not have a place to go. This time we just met for a few hours in the evening. We sat inside and did not wear masks. If it is good enough for the Governor of California or Mayor of Denver, it is good enough for me…
My father is aging. My uncle is even older. They are both quite healthy, but higher risk family members by virtue of their age. We could have expressed our love by staying home, in hopes of maximizing the probability they would stay well. But we chose to express our love by spending one of the most cherished holidays of the year together. I’m not arguing that I should be immune from criticism, but it was not a decision made lightly. We kept to ourselves in the week prior and would not have come if we had even a sniffle.
I do not regret the choices I made over Thanksgiving. But I’m not about to fault those who made the opposite choice and stayed home. Avoiding travel is the safest option right now, but not without cost. Traveling responsibly is possible. The virus is spreading. It is real. But at this late point in the game, emulating Australia or New Zealand is not helpful. It is too late for that. We can, however, take steps to minimize risk. I also believe being a good citizen and neighbor increasingly means not neglecting those who are languishing without human interaction.
Transcending partisan barriers, 80% of U.S. counties saw more travel in 2020 than in 2019 over Thanksgiving week. I don’t think this demonstrates what a basket case the USA is, even as case numbers surge to their worst levels of the pandemics and hospital beds continue to fill up. I do think it demonstrates a deep human urge for travel and fellowship that is vastly under-measured in the risk/benefit analysis that drives personal behavior.