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Millions plan to travel for Christmas, New Year’s as omicron spreads

So far, the variant isn’t expected to significantly dampen holiday travel, as pandemic fatigue and confidence in vaccines remain strong, experts say.

Travelers walk through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York during the Thanksgiving holiday. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)

A few weeks after millions of Americans traveled for Thanksgiving, the omicron variant is emerging as many more people begin to set out for Christmas and New Year’s, worrying public health officials and complicating travel plans.

The end-of-year rush — typically the busiest holiday travel period of the year — will occur as researchers scramble to fully understand the new coronavirus variant’s transmissibility, severity and defenses against vaccines.

But travel watchers say they expect confidence in vaccines and booster shots, coupled with mounting pandemic fatigue after almost two years, will keep millions traveling over the winter holidays despite the increased uncertainty.

Rishabh Chauhan, a University of Illinois at Chicago doctoral candidate studying public risk perception and behavior during the pandemic, said early reports of the variant appearing to be more transmissible but less dangerous probably will leave most holiday travel plans intact.

“We think omicron might put a small dent in travel, but we haven’t heard about any mass cancellations,” Chauhan said. “But we’re living in very uncertain times. News is coming out every day, so it’s shaky to talk about the future.”

With many travel plans still a week away, and medical research findings emerging daily, Chauhan and other experts say it’s difficult to forecast the variant’s effects on pent-up demand for holiday travel.

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“Delta gave a body blow to air travel, and now with omicron there’s a great deal of speculation of what it means,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who uses data modeling to analyze the impact of the virus on the aviation system. “Until more data is available, it’s hard to predict.”

The travel industry is coming off a big Thanksgiving bounce, signaling that many travelers will tolerate a certain amount of risk. Air travel over the 10-day holiday period more than doubled compared with 2020, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The 21 million people screened at security checkpoints amounted to more than 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The more than 2.4 million screened the Sunday after Thanksgiving hit the highest daily tally since the pandemic began, according to TSA figures.

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An Axios-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month, about a week after the omicron news emerged from South Africa, found that most Americans said they didn’t plan to make major changes because of the variant. Fewer than 1 in 4 said they were likely to cancel holiday travel plans.

A more recent Axios/Ipsos poll that ended Dec. 13 found a growing sense of unease, with 68 percent saying they believed air travel would pose a large or moderate health risk — a 10-percent jump from early November.

Abhinav Sharma, a Florida State University assistant hospitality professor studying travel decision-making during the pandemic, said he doesn’t expect omicron to cause more than a “mild to moderate blip.”

“We’ve become more experienced as a society in coming to grips with variant-related news,” Sharma said.

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AAA is projecting 109 million Americans will travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2 — twice as many as over Thanksgiving, which is a more condensed time frame, and almost 28 million more than during the same period last year. That would bring this year’s winter holiday travel within 92 percent of 2019 numbers, the group said. AAA says omicron hasn’t caused its travel agency customers to cancel, probably because many remain confident in vaccines and booster shots.

“We’re not seeing a lot of people change their plans,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel. “I think people are getting accustomed to taking all the precautions they can. They gave up the holidays last year, so they’re going.”

Travelers also have gained more confidence in their ability to reduce their risks, experts say.

Potomac resident Nora Yang recently rebooked a business trip to France after canceling it because of omicron. Yang, who is fully vaccinated with a booster shot, said she changed her mind after early reports of it causing milder infections.

“We reevaluated the situation,” said Yang, 59, a biotech executive. “Nothing is 100 percent safe, but [the business meeting] is a small group of executives, and we’re all going to get tested before.”

She said she plans to avoid crowds and will feel safer on the plane because of the French requirement that arriving visitors provide proof of a negative coronavirus test. Meeting attendees are fully immunized and will wear masks and social distance, she said.

“I’ll be careful,” Yang said. “I feel like I know how to protect myself.”

Travel plans that involve visits with older and medically vulnerable relatives entail a different risk calculation — one that public health experts say still warrants extra caution.

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Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Virginia Tech, warned against unvaccinated people spending time with those over 60 or with less robust immune systems. Vaccinated people should get tested 24 to 48 hours before traveling, she said.

“We know what to do to reduce our risk as much as possible,” Lee said. “Let’s continue to do that. Let’s get vaccinated. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Keep out of big crowds. These are things we all need to do, especially as more people make the decision to take the risk to travel this holiday season.”

Mahmood Khan, a professor and director in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Virginia Tech’s Arlington campus, said people have grown more comfortable traveling as the pandemic has worn on.

“Many travelers are used to mask-wearing and keeping a safe distance,” Khan said. “Travelers are much more attuned to how to face this kind of situation.”

Hotel industry leaders say they believe high gas prices, more than the omicron variant, might keep some holiday travelers home, while some airline executives said they believe any effect from omicron will be short-lived.

“If the return in demand is delayed, so be it,” said Doug Parker, chief executive of American Airlines. “That’s a short-term issue. It’s not a long-term issue. That’s how we view omicron.”

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Transportation Security Administrator David Pekoske said the agency expects airport crowds to approach pre-pandemic levels, as they did over Thanksgiving.

“We are seeing a pretty robust recovery,” Pekoske said at a news conference this week.

For some, flying still feels too risky. District resident Saba Ahmed, 37, said she and her husband will skip another holiday visit with family in California because they don’t plan to fly until their 3-year-old son can get vaccinated.

“I’m just really hesitant about having a preschooler on a plane, especially with the new variant,” said Ahmed, a lawyer. “It’s very contagious. I don’t think he could sit on a plane for five hours with a mask on, and even if he could, I’m not sure a mask would be enough to protect him, so we’ll stay local.”

Time is on the travel industry’s side, experts say. A longitudinal survey that Chauhan and fellow researchers have conducted since spring 2020 to track risk perceptions and behavior during the pandemic shows people have become increasingly confident about traveling since vaccines became widely available, even amid new variants, Chauhan said.

The survey found that, even as the delta variant surged over the summer and fall, 43 percent said they were concerned about having a “serious reaction” to covid-19 — a drop from 62 percent who said so before vaccines were readily accessible. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said video calls were a “good alternative” to visiting friends and family in person fell from 47 percent toward the beginning of the pandemic to 38 percent this fall.

“People are feeling less worried,” Chauhan said. “They feel the risk is lower. People are getting more relaxed.”

FAQ: 9 questions about the omicron variant and travel, answered

Juan Luis Nicolau, a Virginia Tech professor in hospitality and tourism management who has been studying travel decision-making during the pandemic, said he’s seeing larger social gatherings, such as office holiday parties, being canceled because of omicron. But family gatherings will have a higher bar for cancellation, he said, especially after people missed out last year. Attendees also can better trust what precautions their relatives have taken before being around them — a key factor in pandemic-era decision-making, he said.

“We’re more comfortable with family than in huge gatherings where we don’t know how people have been behaving,” Nicolau said.

One key problem with a rapidly spreading variant hitting at the holiday travel season: It complicates the cost-benefit analysis used to make decisions, whether intentionally or subconsciously, experts say. Uncertainty surrounding omicron’s virulence adds to the sense of risk, or potential cost.

“Before, maybe it was ‘We’ll go see grandma at Christmas, of course,’ ” said James K. Hammitt, a Harvard University professor of economics and decision sciences. “But now, we have more reason to put more effort into that choice.”

How omicron is changing the rules of the Covid-19 pandemic

At the same time, visiting far-flung family members increases the sense of benefit, and people have learned they can lower their risk by visiting outside or taking home coronavirus tests before gathering, Hammitt said.

Guido Adelfio, owner of Bethesda Travel Center, said none of his clients with European holiday trips have canceled, even as the omicron variant takes hold there.

The “great deal of worry” he does hear from customers, he said, is more about being inconvenienced by potential government restrictions, such as finding restaurants at their destinations closed. All are vaccinated, he said.

“Nobody has told me ‘I’m worried I’m going to get covid,’ ” Adelfio said. “But everyone is asking ‘What happens if things get shut down?’ … They realize that the vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, but if they get sick, hopefully they get a light case.”

Omicron is upending the holidays for international travelers

Bethesda resident Nick Isbell said he’s been paying close attention to omicron news, particularly from Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. So far, Isbell said, he hasn’t heard anything that makes him want to cancel his two-week holiday vacation in Bethany Beach, Del. He said he feels relatively safe because staying in a house will limit his exposure to others.

“I’m triple-vaccinated,” said Isbell, 59, an economist for the federal government. “I don’t have information telling me that people who’ve had two shots and a booster are at serious risk. … I’ll panic if Dr. Fauci tells me to panic.”

Washington Post polling analyst Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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