Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to travel through the Bay Area’s airports this holiday season despite health officials’ pleas for people to stay home — prompting fears that another surge in COVID-19 cases could be just around the corner.
Though many people are heeding the warnings and foregoing travel this month, as evidenced by huge dips in airport activity, others are strapping on their facemasks and boarding planes. The longing to see family was too great to ignore, they say. So they altered plans, left grandma and grandpa off the guest list and quarantined before leaving in an effort to make their trips as safe as possible.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry. I totally agree with that,” said 28-year-old Mila Givens, who arrived at Oakland International Airport from Las Vegas on Tuesday. “But at the same time, I just miss my family too.”
In California, nearly 9.4 million people are expected to travel during the December holiday season — nearly 576,000 of them by air, according to projections by AAA Northern California. That’s down from more than 15 million total travelers at this time last year. But some health experts worry it’s still too many.
“I’m very concerned that we may see a further acceleration of cases after Christmas,” said Dr. Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who specializes in infectious diseases.
Oakland International Airport expects to see about 200,000 travelers between Dec. 18 and Jan. 3 — compared to about 600,000 during that time last year. The busiest day is likely to be Sunday, with an estimated 13,500 people passing through the airport, according to Port of Oakland spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur.
From Dec. 15 through Dec. 21, a total of 109,283 travelers departed San Francisco International Airport — down from 540,143 during the same time last year, according to airport spokesman Doug Yakel. Passenger volume has been trending down since Thanksgiving. Over the November holiday, the number of travelers leaving the airport was down about 75% compared to last year. This month, it’s down more than 80% — possibly a result of the current health orders and travel advisories, Yakel said.
Representatives from San Jose International Airport did not respond to requests for travel numbers.
Despite the massive decrease in the number of people traveling for the holidays, health experts blame the current COVID surge in part on Thanksgiving gatherings — including those involving travel. In response, San Francisco and Santa Clara County have ordered travelers coming to the region from outside the Bay Area to quarantine for 10 days.
Coronavirus cases exploded in the Bay Area in the weeks after Thanksgiving. Alameda County was reporting an average of about 250 cases per day on Thanksgiving. That daily count has quadrupled to nearly 1,000 in less than a month. On Nov. 28, Santa Clara County was reporting about 500 cases per day, and in just three weeks that number has grown to 1,200 average daily cases, where it has stayed for more than a week.
Less than 14% of the Bay Area’s ICU beds are available, prompting worries that patient care will suffer if more COVID cases flood the region’s hospitals.
“It’s hard not to see family and friends, but that’s what we have to do,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Tuesday. “We know that if we can get through these holidays and avoid significant surges, we have the opportunity to get the virus under control so that next year we have the opportunity to celebrate with loved ones.”
This past Friday, Saturday and Sunday set a new national travel record — more than 1 million people went through TSA airport checkpoints each day. That’s the first time the 1 million mark was hit for three days in a row since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, Oakland International Airport was nearly deserted, but a handful of travelers were checking in for flights or picking up their bags on moving carousels.
Givens originally planned on making the trek from Las Vegas to the East Bay by car because of the pandemic, but daunted by the prospect of a nine-hour drive, she ended up booking a last-minute flight instead.
She planned to get tested for COVID-19 immediately upon arriving, quarantine with her sister in Oakland until getting her test results, and then go to Benicia to see her mother and grandmother.
Kade Kreiser, 20, was flying from Oakland on Tuesday to visit his mother in Dallas for Christmas. The prospect of boarding a flight during the pandemic didn’t phase him.
“It’s not that big of a worry to me,” he said. “I’d rather still live my life than not live my life because there’s something that might potentially harm me.”
Nor was Kreiser overly concerned with warnings from state health officials. After Gov. Gavin Newsom attended a dinner party at the ritzy French Laundry restaurant last month, Kreiser views the governor’s orders to stay home as hypocritical.
“It’s kind of like, if they’re not, why should I?” he said. “I want to see my family. I don’t get to see my mom a lot.”
Ralph Lockhart said he “absolutely” had reservations about flying to Atlanta to see his extended family for the holidays. But the 60-year-old Fremont resident figured he’d be OK as long as he kept his mask on — a yellow cloth mask printed with tiny airplanes — and practiced social distancing.
Devin Cox, 21, of Berkeley, was flying to Tampa, Florida on Tuesday to see his brother and sister-in-law. His whole family lives in Florida — including his parents, grandparents and uncles — but to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, Cox doesn’t plan to see anyone outside his brother’s household.
Even gathering with his brother and sister-in-law makes Cox worry a bit. “But I think it’s worth it to me,” he said.
Winslow is foregoing a visit with his children and grandchildren — whom he misses dearly — this holiday season.
“I think this is a time right now,” he said, “where to get this deadly pandemic under control, we really need to have some shared sacrifice.”