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Coronavirus forces Metro Detroit travelers to think twice

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Three weeks away from a 10-day cruise along the Rhine River in Europe, D.J. Mick plans to go ahead with her long-paid-for vacation despite growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in the United States and abroad.

Mick’s trip involves multiple airports in the United States, Canada and Switzerland, cruise stops in France, Germany and the Netherlands, and some travel by car and train. Mick, who lives near Ann Arbor and has been monitoring the outbreak every day, is packing Clorox wipes, surgical gloves, hand sanitizer and over-the-counter flu medicine.

“It’s all a little complicated, but I think I’m on top of it,” said Mick, who splits her time between Michigan and Florida. “It all feels a little like Russian roulette right now, but I’m not too concerned. I am geeked and really looking forward to the trip.”

One traveler wears a mask and one does not as they approach the TSA Security check in entrance.
Travelers check into TSA security check in lines at Detroit Metro Airport, Friday morning, March 6, 2020.

While Mick is not alone in going ahead with pre-coronavirus travel plans, there are plenty of travelers taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Travel agents, cruise lines and airlines are regularly fielding calls from clients concerned about the virus and their travel plans. Flights have been canceled in the United States and abroad; some airlines and cruise lines have revised their cancellation and change policies; trade shows have been postponed or canceled, and companies are cutting back on employee travel, both domestic and abroad.     

Pam Nikitas, who owns Joan Anderson Travel at the Buhl Building in Detroit, said she hadn't seen travelers so apprehensive since the attacks of Sept. 11.

Some 20 callers per day are asking about postponements or cancellations, she said, and many are wondering if their basic travel insurance will cover their losses.

No, she tells them: you can cancel because of illness, "but you can't cancel out of fear."

The U.S. Travel Association predicts international travel to the U.S. will fall 6% over the next three months as the coronavirus outbreak continues to impact the global economy. 

Detroit Metropolitan Airport estimates about 100,000 fewer passengers will travel through McNamara and North terminals between February and April because of concerns about the virus.

 “Many people are pausing and taking a let’s wait-and-see-what-happens approach,” said Erika Richter, senior director of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors, which represents travel professionals. “There’s no one straight scenario to how people are reacting. We have some agents who have had some cancellations, but people are also rebooking or rescheduling.”

The Global Business Travel Association estimates travel spending around the world could drop by nearly 40% if coronavirus-related travel restrictions continue. It could cost the industry a stunning $46.6 billion a month and nearly $560 billion a year.

“It’s one of the busiest times of the year travel. The weather is good and lots of events are going on, but there’s going to be an impact,” said John H. Thomas, a professor at the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Florida International University. “Everyday there are new coronavirus cases. People are going to be reluctant to go into crowds, no matter where that’s at. They’re not going to want to be in closed spaces or even outdoors with lots of people, standing in long lines.”

Travel deals typical 

While consumers are finding cruise deals, “it’s difficult to now if any of the incentives we’re seeing right now are reflective of what’s going on, as they are pretty par-for-the-course this time of the year to begin with,” said Christine Sarkis, executive editor of the online travel magazine SmarterTravel.com.

 Sarkis noted it’s the middle of “wave season” in the cruise industry, which runs from January through the end of March. She likened the season to Black Friday or Cyber Monday with cruise lines typically offering discounted fares and added value promotions.

  It’s the same for airfares.

 “For the most part, the airfares that we’re seeing right now are pretty standard for this time of year,” said Tracy Stewart, content editor at the travel deal site Airfarewatchdog.com.

 Richter said some airlines, destinations and cruise lines are offering discounts, but agreed it’s difficult to align with the effect of the coronavirus. Cruise lines, she reiterated, offer discounts this time of the year for future bookings.

Samy Lamothe, of Everett, MA, wears a protective mask as he and several all-star teammates from New England travel to a seven-on-seven football tournament at The Legacy Center in Brighton this weekend.

Cleaning a priority

Michigan’s largest airport is one of 11 in the country selected by the Department of Homeland Security to receive flights from China. Those flights are being directed to airports where the federal government has added public health resources for enhanced screening procedures.

 “Out of an abundance of caution, we’re cleaning the Federal Inspection Station — also known as the International Arrivals area — more frequently in both the McNamara and North terminals,” Chad Newton, CEO of Wayne County Airport Authority, said in a statement.

The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau said there have been no convention cancellations so far because of the coronavirus, but the organization is continuing to monitor the situation and remain in contact with clients. More than 200 groups are expected in 2020, including the NCAA Frozen Four, the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives and the International Women’s Forum; combined, the conventions will have a $300 million impact on the local economy.

 At The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, one of the state’s top tourist destinations, it’s been business as usual but with an increased emphasis on cleanliness and more hand sanitizer spots for visitors, staff and students (those who attend the institution’s high school academy).

“We’re going above and beyond additional measures to clean areas more often, basically upon the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization,” said Christian Cullen, the Henry Ford’s managing director of integrated operations. “We want everybody here, whether you’re a guest, employee or student, to know we have plenty of sanitation options available to you.”

Thousands of people visit the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation every day, and normal business activities remain intact, he said.

 JoAnne Verboom, owner of Travel by Gagnon in Grand Rapids and president of the Great Lakes Chapter of the ASTA, said media coverage has created panic with some travelers. Booking trips with travel agents, she said, can add layers of comforts in booking flights, hotels and cruises.

 “The takeaway, I think, for somebody who really wants to travel is they need to talk to a travel professional out there and figure out where they can go and how they can get there with the least amount of possibility that they would lose their hard-earned money on their trip,” she said.         

  While her office has fielded calls from concerned travelers, curious about their options, few have canceled trips. She noted a couple who had booked a trip to South Korea and Japan did cancel because they were fearful of ending up in quarantine.  They rebooked for San Diego.

Travelers stand in line waiting to check in at the Delta counter. Travelers check into TSA security check in lines at Detroit Metro Airport, Friday morning, March 6, 2020.

'The scary part'

Noris Favot and his wife, Darla, are monitoring coverage of the coronavirus daily, wondering how to proceed with a trip booked to Venice, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast in August. Their flights and their rooms have been booked for the 16-day trip.

The couple has no plans to cancel visits to Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast but are concerned about Venice, where Favot’s aunt lives. She has told them many businesses are closed because of the virus.

“We don’t want to take a chance of getting there and something happens, and we can’t get back,” said Favot, a Livonia building contractor. “What’s happening in Venice does make you think twice. There are so many people there in contact with one another. That’s the scary part right now.”

Ann Arbor’s Mick has been receiving regular communication from her European-based cruise company about her impending trip. One of the messages noted the company was prohibiting people who had traveled through or from China within a certain time period from joining the excursion.

Mick said she would only cancel her trip if the company chose to reschedule the cruise or if the CDC issued travel warnings to any of her destinations.

“Then I would get nervous, really nervous,” she said.

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.

Detroit News Staff Writer Neal Rubin contributed.