Michiganians still traveling over the holidays, but in far fewer numbers

Detroit — Many in Michigan and across the United States are still traveling for the holidays — though in fewer numbers than previous years — despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay home amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Wednesday was the busiest airport travel day this year since the start of the pandemic with 1.19 million airline passengers, but that's still nearly 40% below last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Total passenger count surpassed 1 million for three consecutive days this weekend for the first time during the pandemic.

Still, the 3.2 million people who traveled Friday through Sunday is far fewer than the 7.6 million who traveled on the same days last year.

People line at Detroit Metro Airport McNamara Terminal as they check-in luggage and head towards their departure gates on Wednesday.

December travel figures for the Detroit Metro Airport were not available, but in November the airport saw more than 1 million passengers, a 63% decline from last November, but an improvement from the lowest point in April when the airport accommodated just over 178,000 passengers, according to the Wayne County Port Authority, which operates the airport.

"Many customers are modifying their travel plans due to recent federal travel advisories and state-issued health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic," Erica Donerson, spokeswoman for the authority, said in a statement.

Those traveling by car in Michigan should expect to see snow on Christmas.

In the Detroit area, the National Weather Service expects the snow to start after 4 p.m. The chance of snow is 60% and accumulation is expected to be less than an inch. Winds could be as high as 21 mph.

Other parts of Michigan could see multiple inches of snow on the ground by Friday. On the west side of the state, the National Weather Service has issued a winter weather advisory for the areas closest to Lake Michigan, including Lake, Newaygo, Barry, Kent and Kalamazoo counties, from 4 a.m. Thursday until 7 p.m. Friday. Total accumulation in western counties could total nearly 6 inches in western counties, with winds gusting as high as 40 mph. Parts of the Upper Peninsula could see 16 inches.

The American Automobile Association said it expected the "vast majority" of Americans would stay home this year due to concerns about public health, but still expected some 84.5 million people nationwide and 2.6 million people in Michigan to travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3. If those estimates hold, it would be about a 30% reduction from last year.

"While Thanksgiving is traditionally spent gathering with friends and family, the year-end holidays are when Americans often venture out for longer, more elaborate vacations. That will not be the case this year," Adrienne Woodland, spokesperson for the AAA Auto Club Group, said in a statement. 

AAA predicted the sharpest declines would occur for bus and train trips, followed by air travel. Most Americans who travel will do so by car, the federation of motor clubs said. In Michigan, AAA predicted automobile travel would be down 27.1%; air travel would be down nearly 60%; and other modes of travel would be down more than 87% from last year.

People line at Detroit Metro Airport McNamara Terminal as they check-in luggage and head towards their departure gates on Wednesday.

The pandemic has pummeled the travel industry, leading to mass layoffs at airlines and airports as they struggle with low demand.

Detroit-based travel agent Pam Nikitas has just a small number of clients she's planned trips for this holiday season. Overall she said holiday business is down about 70%. Right now she's booking trips mostly for mid-2021 and 2022. 

"Everyone's waiting on vaccines," the owner of Joan Anderson Travel Agency said. "They just feel safer with that."

The agency has been in operation since 1935 and the pandemic has been perhaps the most disruptive event for the business. "9/11 was tough but this is worse, but you get through it," Nikitas said.

Travelers check in for a flight at Detroit Metro Airport McNamara Terminal on Thanksgiving,Thursday, November 26, 2020.

Likewise, JoAnne Verboom, owner of Travel by Gagnon in Grand Rapids and president of the Great Lakes chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents, reports that holiday travel is down "considerably" among her clients this year.

And while in previous years many of her clients sought out warm-weather destinations such as Florida and Cancun over the holiday break, Verboom is seeing travelers instead plan trips to visit family this year.

"I think it's the overall feeling created by the pandemic this year, that people might feel that they want to spend free time with their loved ones, versus going on a regular vacation that they've done every year previously," she said. "They didn't go and visit family during the summer, and now it's 10 months into staying at home and people are wanting to spend a special holiday" with family.

One holiday traveler, who asked not to be named because he did not want to be judged for traveling during the pandemic, said his family of four typically travels over the holidays, and decided to go ahead with plans to visit friends in Phoenix. The Ann Arbor family plans to fly out of Detroit the day after Christmas and return Jan. 2.

That person said the family felt comfortable traveling during the pandemic because they will wear masks, they trust others to exercise good judgement and they've been careful about health protocols. Their trip will focus on outdoor activities such as hiking, which the family felt was important for the sake of their 12- and 15-year-old children who are on break from school and have fewer recreational activities going on right now. 

Earlier this month the CDC warned that traveling may increase the possibility of getting and spreading the coronavirus. It was recommended to postpone travel.

The country over the last several weeks has been battling a spike in COVID-19 cases. Michigan issued new restrictions to help stop the spread in mid-November. Just this week, bowling alleys, movie theaters and casinos were allowed to reopen under certain rules, including no concessions. 

Indoor dining is still restricted. Food and drink concessions only offer carry-out service at the airport. Retail locations are not impacted by the order, but many shops and restaurants have limited hours or are temporarily closed, the Detroit airport notes on its website. 

Face masks are required at the Detroit airport. The airport has free face coverings available in ticket lobbies of the McNamara and North terminals. Signs are posted throughout the airport encouraging social distancing and good hygiene. There's also hand sanitizer stations in many high-traffic areas. The airport's janitorial staff has increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting in terminals, especially in high touchpoint areas.

Sarah Latcham, rigth, with daughters Mary Jane, 2, and Elizabeth, 11-months, check-in at Detroit Metro Airport McNamara Terminal on Wednesday, December 23, 2020.

It's recommended to arrive at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight.

"The holidays are usually a busy time at Detroit Metropolitan Airport," airport spokeswoman Donerson said. "Although we expect fewer travelers than this time last year, we are still encouraging our customers to plan ahead."


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