With half of American adults fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, millions are celebrating Memorial Day by taking to the skies, with authorities reporting a surge in air travel as many embark on their first maskless holiday since the pandemic began.
More than 37 million Americans are projected to travel 50 miles or more this holiday weekend, an increase of 60 percent compared with this time last year, which registered the lowest number of Memorial Day travelers on record, according to AAA. Just 23 million people traveled last year for the holiday, the company said.
Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel, said in a news release that “Americans are demonstrating a strong desire to travel this Memorial Day.” Las Vegas and Orlando are two of the more popular spots during the busy holiday weekend, according to the company.
“This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions,” Twidale said.
Robert Sinclair, a AAA spokesman, described the uptick as “revenge travel” — after a year or more of not going anywhere.
The return of American travel, and whether the industry can readjust to pre-pandemic levels, comes as daily infection numbers in the country are at their lowest since March 25, 2020, according to a Washington Post database. More than 14,000 new cases were reported Saturday. Covid deaths also are significantly down, with average fatality rates not seen since last summer, the database shows.
For many, the holiday weekend marks not just the official start of summer but also the first time in the pandemic that they are gathering with friends and family in faraway destinations — and without masks — for barbecues, beaches, baseball and maybe a beer or two.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently relaxed recommendations on traveling and gathering with groups indoors and outdoors or with other fully vaccinated people, which coincided with more states lifting or easing restrictions put in place to help curb the spread of the virus. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky even urged those who are vaccinated to “go enjoy your Memorial Day weekend.”
But with half of the U.S. adult population still unvaccinated, questions remain about what the uptick in travel could mean for those not inoculated. Only about 40 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated, according to The Post’s database.
Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease expert, recently noted that some were “misinterpreting” the CDC’s guidance this month, reminding that the health agency did not tell unvaccinated people to go without masks.
Leana S. Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University, raised concern in a column for The Post about what it would mean for children to be in public spaces with people who are both unvaccinated and maskless.
“The foreboding we’ve lived with throughout the pandemic has finally been replaced by optimism,” Wen wrote. “But covid-19 remains a real concern for many — including families with young children.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Sunday told ABC News’s “This Week” that he was cautiously optimistic about what the surge in travel means for the transportation system but stressed that safety precautions must be taken. He also emphasized that travelers were still required to wear masks on planes, trains and buses.
“We’re not back to normal yet, we’re not out of the woods yet as a country with this pandemic, but we’re seeing such progress,” Buttigieg said, offering a message similar to President Biden’s about the nation “getting our lives back.”
“We are coming out of one of the biggest shocks, perhaps the biggest shock that the modern American transportation system has ever seen in terms of demand, schedules, all of these things changing. The system is getting back into gear.”
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg tells @MarthaRaddatz "we are coming out of one of the biggest shocks—perhaps the biggest shock that the modern American transportation system has ever seen," as travel surges this holiday weekend. https://t.co/WYsXhlVuR9 pic.twitter.com/jPJLNurpHc— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) May 30, 2021
Airline industry executives took notice of the increased travel at an industry conference last week, noting that leisure bookings started to slowly climb in March.
“The surge in travel is just now starting to happen,” Frontier Airlines chief executive Barry Biffle said at the conference, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Memorial Day is going to be big; the Fourth of July is going to be crazy.”
Travelers flying this weekend return to planes as tension over wearing masks onboard have heightened. Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration noted in an online meeting last week that most of the roughly 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers since Jan. 1 have involved people who have refused to follow the federal mandate on wearing a mask while flying.
“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said at the industry conference. His sentiment was echoed by Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants: “We’ve never seen it so bad.”
After a passenger was recently captured on video punching a Southwest Airlines flight attendant in the face and knocking out two teeth, both Southwest and American Airlines announced that they had postponed plans to resume serving alcohol on flights in response to the uptick in unruly behavior from travelers.
Buttigieg said any decisions on whether vaccinated people could go maskless while flying would “be driven by public health considerations,” and he denounced the “totally unacceptable” attacks on transportation workers.
“Remember what they have been through … and make sure to show some appreciation and respect for everybody,” he said. “They have been on the front lines of this pandemic.”
Those hitting the road this weekend face gas prices that have spiked to a seven-year high, averaging more than $3 a gallon, compared with less than $2 last year, according to AAA. Western states such as California, Washington and Nevada have some of the highest average gas prices, but drivers in states such as Illinois, Hawaii and Alaska also are getting pinched at the pump.
GasBuddy, an app and website focused on finding real-time fuel prices, projected that Americans would spend about $4.7 billion on gas between Friday and Monday. The estimate comes after Colonial Pipeline was forced to shut its pipeline this month because of a ransomware attack, leaving large swaths of the East Coast with fuel shortages.
“Gas prices have been increasing for months due to the continued rise in gasoline demand as a myriad of destinations reopen ahead of the summer driving season,” Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, told CNBC.
As New York, Chicago, D.C. and other cities have scheduled Memorial Day parades, which were nonexistent in 2020, people are also returning to beaches, national parks and stadiums. Rick Ueno, general manager of W South Beach hotel, told CNN that with the return of summer travelers, he is pushing his employees to get vaccinated so that they will not only be healthy but also benefit from the folks coming to South Florida with disposable income to spend.
“We’re [seeing] so many signs of recovery as the rest of the world slowly opens back up,” Ueno said. “The pandemic taught us that we adapt and readapt, and we’ll continue to do so as needed.”