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Holiday travel down in Washington, Idaho as health experts urge folks to stay home

By Riley Utley For The Spokesman-Review

Millions are heeding the advice of health officials to stay home during the holidays to avoid spreading COVID-19.

But there are still millions on the road and in the air.

This year, 84.5 million people are expected to travel for the holidays in the United States, according to AAA. That’s 34 million less than last year.

There are 2.2 million Washingtonians expected to travel, down from 2.8 million last year. In Idaho, 457,000 are expected to travel, down from 614,000, AAA reported.

“Keep in mind that those bookings were in late November and throughout 2020 travel has kind of been a wait-and-see sort of game,” said Kelly Just, public relations manager for AAA in Washington state. “So, with the latest surge, people may have changed their minds and canceled their trips.”

Washington health leaders are asking the public not to meet with others outside their immediate household.

“Our efforts to avoid a post-Thanksgiving spike seemed to have worked,” deputy secretary of health Lacy Fehrenbach said. “We need to do the same thing for the remaining holidays.”

Fehrenbach reminded everyone to wear a mask and avoid large social gatherings this holiday season.

According to AAA, 116,000 Washingtonians are expected to travel by plane over the holidays, a 60% decline from last year.

Between 8 and 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Spokane International Airport was sparse with people.

Flyers came in slowly with no lines forming at any of the check-in stations or baggage drop-off areas.

A maze of Plexiglas made up the security line which never backed up, and people stayed distanced while moving through the line. When a flight from Seattle landed, not many people exited and all were wearing masks. Some had double masks and a face shield while others had one cloth mask or neck gator on. There were about 20 people from that flight waiting at baggage claim, all far apart from each other.

Britt DeTienne, Spokane International Airport spokesman, said the airport would not release passenger numbers for the holidays until February. He said he didn’t want to speculate on “passenger activity or numbers.”

“As a practical matter, passenger activity has fallen due to pandemic responses in Washington and other states, which has reduced travel in Spokane and across the nation,” DeTienne said in an email.

The airport has put many precautions in place to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state to keep flyers safe.

This includes reduced seating by gates, requiring everyone to wear a mask, physical distancing signage, terminal-wide announcements every 15 minutes reminding those in the airport of the face covering requirement and to wash hands regularly, Plexiglas at departure areas and in front of counters and the addition of many hand sanitizer stations throughout the terminals.

“You can smell that they’ve cleaned everything here. It’s really good,” said Kristine Brennan, who was flying to Salt Lake City to visit family for the holiday.

The CDC and the states of Washington and Idaho do not recommend traveling but have not prohibited it.

The CDC says if people are traveling they should check travel restrictions before leaving, get the flu shot, bring extra masks and hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol), consider delaying travel if needed, wear a mask in all public settings, avoid close contact, wash hands regularly and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth.

Getting a COVID-19 test before traveling can also make the trip safer.

“If you are traveling, consider getting tested with a viral test 1-3 days before your trip,” the CDC website says. “Also consider getting tested with a viral test 3-5 days after your trip and reduce nonessential activities for a full 7 days after travel, even if your test is negative.

“If you don’t get tested, consider reducing nonessential activities for 10 days after travel.”

Some states require a negative COVID-19 test before entering the state. Most states have travel advisories and others have travel restrictions.

In Washington, there is a travel advisory in place that recommends self-quarantining for 14 days upon arrival after being outside the state. Idaho does not have travel restrictions and recommends following CDC guidance when traveling.

Marc Hattenburg and his family returned form a vacation in Hawaii and said they had to get tested before leaving.

“We couldn’t get on the plane in Seattle without a negative test,” Hattenburg said. “Other than that, there wasn’t much else. There was a lot of paperwork to get there, and they also required masks everywhere.”

Hattenburg said the airports seemed pretty busy in Seattle and Hawaii but not busy at all in Spokane.

Just, of AAA, said while there are still many travelers this year, there are more people than expected deciding to stay home.

AAA predicted a 10% drop in traveling over Thanksgiving, but preliminary data indicates there was a bigger drop than that, Just said. She noted that a recent spike in coronavirus cases nationwide likely will boost the number of people who opt to stay home.

She said the largest decrease nationally has been in air travel because people are choosing to stay home or travel by car, saying 96% of travel will happen by car this season.

“Call ahead to the hotels and if you’re going to rent a car,” Just said. “Call and ask how they’re cleaning the rooms and the vehicles. Things are going to look different at hotels. You probably won’t have your linens changed every day. It’ll probably only be changed after you check out, just to limit the number of people in the room and to limit their contact with people.”

She also said if traveling to bring extra water, snacks, hand sanitizer and a thermometer to avoid unnecessary stops and contact with other people.

“Travel in 2020 is all about planning,” Just said. “You don’t just jump in the car and go anymore.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report