How Is Covid-19 Impacting 2020's Holiday Season?

By Rosunnara Roth and Hannah RileyLast Updated Nov 27, 2020 2:12:57 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every year, the winter-holiday months add up to big spending and whirlwind activity for both companies and people. Families, health officials, retailers and airlines all start participating in one of the busiest times of the year to shop and travel. However, the COVID-19 outbreak remains a global threat, even now that the holidays are upon us. To continue mitigating that threat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that "postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others [from getting COVID-19] this year" and is clear about the risks people assume when they decide to travel during a pandemic.

But despite these explicit guidelines, families who are desperate to see loved ones whom they haven't had contact with since the pandemic began (and those who are desperate for some normalcy — and a vacation) are causing airlines to experience large bumps in travel. The Friday before Thanksgiving saw more than 1 million people pass through U.S. airports in "the second-highest single-rush day of travelers since the start of the pandemic," according to The Washington Post. Despite the fact that this may end up putting more pressure on already-stressed healthcare systems as daily case counts continue to climb and winter wages on, The Washington Post also notes travelers have stated "that the CDC's guidance...had either not registered or made no difference in their decision-making" when it came time to make choices about holiday trips.

While the travel aspect of the season isn't doing much so far to quell worries about transmission, health officials continue to share predictions on what the future may hold for the holiday season that's upon us and the months that'll follow — along with promising news about vaccines that may buoy our spirits a little as we navigate "new normal" holidays. These predictions have prompted stores like Target, Walmart and other retailers to implement newly revised plans to keep their businesses afloat through the end of the year and beyond. The holiday season can be stressful enough without the threat of a pandemic, so before you start booking flights and putting together a game plan for hitting the local mall in search of gift deals, take a look at what retail, travel and health experts have to say about expectations for 2020’s holiday season.

The Important Lessons From Summer Travel

Summer travel offered us a preview of what's now beginning to happen as people travel during the holiday season. As restrictions have begun easing somewhat, people have slowly started flying again — but on the upside, the rates at which they're doing so are still drastically lower compared to summer trends. In total, air travel has been down by 70% from 2019. And while over 1 million people visited airports for travel on November 20, that's fewer than half of the more than 2.5 million who went through U.S. airports on the same date in 2019.

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Photo Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Because travelers are hesitant to fly, you might board with fewer people on flights during the holidays, but it really depends on the airline. Based on summer trends and updated guidance from the CDC, cautious travelers may continue visiting destinations that are closer to home, so you could see more people on the road.

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What Health Officials Say About the Holidays

Some good news? After various vaccine research studies made significant progress in the summer and autumn of 2020, each successfully completed phase has brought us closer to what's now looking like multiple vaccines. In early November, pharmaceutical company Pfizer reported that the vaccine it's been formulating and testing was found to be more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 in people who hadn't previously been infected. Just days later, Moderna and AstraZeneca — two additional pharmaceutical and biotechnology titans that have been working diligently to formulate and test their own vaccines — reported that preliminary analyses following their Phase 3 testing periods indicated their vaccines were 94.5% and up to 90% effective, respectively.

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Photo Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

On November 20, Pfizer filed for an Emergency Use Authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which, if approved, will allow the vaccine to be used in an emergency capacity to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This type of approval can take several weeks, but, once it's granted, Pfizer's vaccine is expected to start making its way to cities around the United States within 24 hours — 6 million doses will be ready for distribution at that time.

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And if the Pfizer vaccine's emergency approval is given the green light, the timing couldn't be more pertinent. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, the conditions surrounding COVID-19 have begun worsening. New daily COVID-19 cases in the United States have risen to more than 195,000 — an all-time high that's seeing state leaders and health officials scramble to enact new policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus once more. And that's compounded by the fact that this time of year presents its own unique challenges, with more time spent indoors and a run of holidays that typically involve cross-country travel and ample time spent celebrating with family, friends and coworkers. Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard Global Health Institute, explained, "There really is no easy way to socialize during late fall [and] winter in large parts of the country if you're not doing it outside. Could I have people over at my house for two hours on a Sunday morning in December? Barring really good testing, probably not."

But just like the summer season, the holidays tempt families to gather, especially those dealing with quarantine fatigue and those who live far away from each other. Health experts remain resistant to the idea of gathering under the same roof during the holidays and suggest taking extra precautions before proceeding if you choose to take that risk, including getting tested and assessing the guest list to determine if anyone has a greater-than-normal risk of exposure (someone in the medical field, for example).

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After the lockdown and through the summer, a lot of people let their guards down. And in the wake of renewed shelter-in-place orders this autumn, Americans appear to be resisting, determined to experience holidays with some sense of normalcy. KXAN News reported that family gatherings led to a surge of COVID-19 cases across the country, showing just how essential it is to wear masks and practice social distancing — or just avoid get-togethers completely to keep everyone safe.

Health experts are worried about holiday gatherings, especially indoor meet-ups. If people plan to go through with them, they should stay at least 6 feet apart, wear a mask, wipe down frequently touched surfaces, meet in a building with sufficient filters in its ventilation system, use a portable air purifier and a humidifier, and stay clear of crowded rooms. It’s not the most fun way to have a gathering, but it’s the right move. One way to enjoy this season without gatherings? Soften the blow a bit while avoiding holiday travel, maintain connections with loved ones and even have some pandemic-appropriate holiday fun by using these tips to spread holiday cheer to family and friends from the comfort of home (and your computer screen).

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How Retailers Are Preparing for the Holiday Season

As the outbreak continues, people are statistically shopping in person less, so the notoriously frantic holiday shopping season is looking different this year. In the past, retailers opened as early as Thanksgiving morning to take advantage of the massive crowds primed and ready to buy heavily discounted goods for Black Friday. However, today’s changing shopping habits mean retailers are shifting their strategies to meet the public’s new needs.

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Photo Courtesy: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Many major stores already announced they will not be open on Thanksgiving Day, including Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Walmart. However, there’s still no official statement from any of the big contenders on the chaotic (and often dangerous without a pandemic) Black Friday tradition of packing the stores with sale items that attract hordes of shoppers. With all the risks, it seems unlikely they will proceed with traditional Black Friday practices, but even the "non-essential" big retailers have reopened, so they're likely to be open for at least part of the day — but probably not with aisles full of one-day-only deals.

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Could this be the death of Black Friday? Target says no, but then there's a twist. The company brought Black Friday to people earlier this year (without the mob), having started to release deals as early as October instead of on a single day. "This isn’t a year for crowds," Target shared in a statement. "That’s why our biggest holiday deals will be available earlier than ever, so you can shop safely and conveniently without worrying about missing out on deals that usually come later in the season." That’s music to the ears of both deal hunters and people who are hesitating to shop during the pandemic. Home Depot also announced a similar plan to run deals over a period of two months instead of on a single day.

Although stores may be emptier than usual this season, the internet will be buzzing. It’s going to be an "add to cart" kind of year as "66% of shoppers are saying they expect to increase their online purchases this holiday season." On one hand, this will help keep the virus from spreading. On the other hand, a blowup of online shopping during an already demanding time may cause longer delivery windows and a rise in sold-out items — small prices to pay for maintaining our safety. Additionally, increased online shopping makes the fate of small businesses uncertain, but developing an omnichannel strategy could increase their chance of survival.

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Concerned About Crowded Flights? Here's What You Should Know

Airlines have continued to operate throughout the pandemic — but with some significant changes and challenges. Most have shifted their focus to implementing methods of protecting passengers while still making a profit, but the specific steps they've been taking vary by carrier. Southwest, for example, began using hospital-grade disinfectants to clean each plane between every flight and spending six to seven hours a night cleaning the planes. The airline installed hospital-grade HEPA filters to trap airborne particles and will continue to limit the number of passengers allowed on each flight by not booking the middle seat to maintain social distancing at least through November 30. Customers are also still required to wear appropriate face coverings throughout their entire travel experience with Southwest.

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Photo Courtesy: Sandy Huffaker/Getty News/Getty Images

Meanwhile, other airlines raised some eyebrows and invited criticism that they couldn't care less about public safety. Spirit, American, United and Allegiant resumed flying at full capacity and refused to continue to block seats about halfway through the summer. United made its position even worse by calling blocked seats a "PR strategy." Some of these airlines amended different policies as the pandemic has continued — American eventually started using virus-killing coatings on high-touch areas in its planes, for example — but they have not budged on reducing capacity for safety. United has continued booking to capacity but has stated that it's notifying passengers if their flights appear to be getting full to give those travelers the opportunity to change tickets.

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Social distancing practices remain in place on other airlines, including Southwest, which has extended its ban on middle seat bookings through the end of November. JetBlue initially committed to blocking middle seats through October 15, with the CEO noting in an interview with The Washington Post, "I think you’re going to definitely have to sit next to a stranger again on a plane, because the economics of our industry, most airlines have a break-even load factor of 75% to 80%." The company chose not to extend its policy of blocking middle seats through the holidays but has explained that it's limiting flight capacities into early 2021. Additionally, Delta’s limited seating policy was set to expire at the end of September but has now been extended through January 6, 2021. Fortunately, some airlines have been amenable to extending limited seating policies as the pandemic has waged on, and it's possible more extensions will be made as needed.

How to Stay Safe During Road and Air Travel

As much as health officials recommend that people stay home, we live in a reality where people are craving family time after months — now nearing a year — apart. People want to see their families, and they’re going to find ways to do it. That's why health officials have prepared travel tips to try to keep everyone as safe as possible. If you're considering traveling during the holidays, first of all, check to see if the number of cases at your destination is high. If it is, rethink your trip; more cases mean you have a higher risk of getting infected.

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Photo Courtesy: Noam Galai/Getty Images

You also need to determine if your destination has travel requirements or guidelines in place. States have been re-implementing lockdown policies similar to those we saw during the early days of the pandemic, and this can mean you'll be subject to some restrictions upon your arrival. For instance, New York has been requiring travelers from certain states to quarantine for 14 days, and this restriction is still in place — although you now have the option to "test out" of it if you've undergone the required procedural elements.

Tips for driving: Check the routes and rest stops for your road trip, as some areas may be closed. When you do need to stop, practice social distancing and avoid high-touch surfaces. Make sure to pack essentials, like snacks, face masks, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, disinfecting wipes and disposable gloves.

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Tips for flying: Research and book with airlines that are the safest to fly by looking at their COVID-19 prevention policies, such as capping occupancy, blocking seats, disinfecting the cabins and mandating face masks. Just as you would if you were driving, pack your own face masks, hand sanitizer and hand wipes. Those wipes are necessary for sanitizing your seat, armrests, headrests, remotes, sidewalls and tray table.

Reminder: Once you reach your family, don’t assume it’s safe to spend time with them without masks and social distancing. As much as we want to enjoy their company like we did in the good old days, we should take every step possible to protect ourselves and the people around us. It’s our responsibility to act with others’ safety and comfort in mind. Let’s make sure we all do our part in this season of giving. Give your loved ones the gift of conscientiousness and good health — not COVID-19.

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