The Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa had hoped her son would be able to visit this Christmas.
Erick has come every holiday season since his mother left the East Coast in 2016 to take over the ministry at Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward. And he’s had a rough year — he lost his dream business, a Boston coffeehouse, to the coronavirus-caused economic downturn — so he could use the emotional boost a family visit would mean.
But not during this pandemic year.
“We won’t risk it,” said the minister, whose church has been closed since March for the protection of its members. “The fear of contagion, just when we are about to get the vaccine, overrides all desire to get together. I live with my 90-year-old mother, and I must protect her too.”
That stay-at-home ethos is just what CDC, California and county health officials want to hear. COVID-19 case numbers and deaths are surging nationally, with Thanksgiving get-togethers the suspected contagion culprit. In the two weeks since the holiday, the state’s average daily case count has increased 132 percent, and its average daily death toll even more, 157 percent. Sheltering and quarantine rules are in place in many California locations, and hotels in a significant portion of the state are closed to all but essential workers.
Many Americans are already thinking twice about traveling for Christmas and New Year’s, according to the American Automobile Association’s forecast for Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, issued Tuesday.
AAA anticipates the number of Americans traveling by air or road during that time period will decline at least 29 percent — a much bigger drop than at Thanksgiving, when AAA forecasters predicted a 10 percent drop but now believe it was steeper, between 15 and 20 percent.
Between now and year’s end, “the continued rise in coronavirus cases could prompt additional would-be travelers to forgo their plans,” Sergio Avila, a spokesman for AAA Northern California, said in the report.
Even with the decline, an estimated 84 million Americans — a quarter of the nation’s population — will be traveling. A survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found a majority of this season’s travelers say they won’t be staying at hotels or motels but rather with family or friends — the sort of mixing of households that health officials are discouraging.
Some Californians who think their risk factors are low may be tempted to book a December or January vacation, what with airlines and destinations eager for their business.
Southwest has been pitching $99 one-way fares between the Bay Area and Honolulu. Alaska Airlines is rolling out an early testing program that allows customers to get an exemption from Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine before they even leave the mainland. In Florida, where state health officials are blaming a 25 percent increase in coronavirus cases on Thanksgiving travel, Orlando tourism officials are hoping for a “significant boost” in Christmas and New Year’s hotel bookings, according to a Business Journal article.
All health officers are warning against non-essential travel for Christmas and New Year’s, with Dr. Anthony Fauci telling his national audience to “think seriously” about who they would be exposing before making holiday plans.
Travel expert Christopher Elliott, who writes the nationally syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column, is telling his readers to put their wanderlust on hold this season: “If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Mexico and your travel agent calls and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great deal on an all-inclusive vacation in Cabo,’ just say no.”
Elliott himself had to deliver that pandemic-era message to his three teenagers, who were hoping for a December trip to Southern California but will stay home instead. “We’re going to have to do LA another time,” he said.
Travelers who have already booked trips and now want to bow out for safety’s sake should contact the airline and hotels right away, Elliott said. Most hotels have a one- or two-day cancellation policy. Travelers who cancel their flights will get a credit valid for 12 months from the date of the ticket purchase (not the date of the flight).
Elliot warns that travelers can’t just not show up for their flight and assume they’ll get a credit. If the airlines don’t get a heads up, “they’ll keep your money, pandemic or no pandemic.”
Even entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend on visitors are urging caution.
The California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns, which represents more than 200 B&Bs hit hard by the coronavirus economy, recommends giving the gift of travel this season. On their website, they’re asking would-be visitors to buy gift certificates valid for future getaways at any of the group’s 200 member inns. And they’ve switched the CABBI Travel Blog focus, with articles about vacation memories. “We hope to provide a bit of armchair travel inspiration until we can all resume our journeys.”
As for the Hayward minister, her heart will be aching for the families that are grieving, as she realizes how “blessed and fortunate” she is that her son is in good health.
“So this Christmas, we’ll see each other on Zoom,” she said, “and will hold onto hope that next year we’ll be together.”