Ask Answers: How Will COVID-19 Impact 2020's Holiday Season?

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Sep 16, 2020 1:15:25 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By August every year, families, health officials, retailers and airlines are already planning for one of the busiest times to travel — the holiday season. However, the COVID-19 outbreak continues to be a global threat, which raises the question: Will family members take those desperately needed trips home for the holidays?

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Health officials are sharing predictions on what the future may hold for the fall and winter months, and Target, Walmart and other retailers are already implementing plans to keep their businesses afloat through the holidays. The holiday season can be stressful enough without the threat of a global pandemic, so before booking flights and getting in line for Black Friday, find out what retail, travel and health experts have to say about 2020’s holiday season.

The Important Lessons from Summer Travel

Summer travel offered us a preview of what could happen when people travel around the holiday season. Currently, it’s super cheap and enticing to buy flights, especially when Southwest is dangling $39 to $49 deals in front of travelers. As a result, people are slowly flying again, but it’s still drastically less compared to last summer’s trend. In total, air travel is down by 70% from 2019.

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Photo Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Domestic travel has actually grown. Between April 1 and May 10, travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth saw a 15% increase in shorter trips from last year. Road trips are becoming more popular with Americans, making up 97% of all summer trips, and it’s easy to understand why. People don’t feel comfortable flying. It probably has something to do with being stuck in a confined space with strangers who may not have the same mask and hygiene practices as you. When you’re driving, you’re in more control and not exposed to strangers, so it’s much more appealing to wary travelers.

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, 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

Good news: Health officials believe COVID-19 vaccine studies will be finished by the fall. Bad news: They don’t know how long it will protect patients or how to release it to the public efficiently. The conditions surrounding COVID-19 may also get worse by the holidays. 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."

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Photo Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

But just like the summer season, the holidays tempt families to gather, especially those suffering from quarantine-fatigue and those who live apart from each other. Health experts are 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, like getting tested and assessing the guestlist.

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After the lockdown and through the summer, a lot of people let their guards down. KXAN News reported that family gatherings led to a surge of COVID-19 cases across the country, showing that we really need to wear masks and social distance or just avoid get-togethers completely to keep everyone safe.

Health experts are worried about holiday gatherings, especially indoor meet-ups, but if people plan to go through with them, they should "stay at least six 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 desired move, but it’s the right move.

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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 notorious holiday shopping season is going to look different this year. In the past, retailers opened as early as Thanksgiving to draw massive crowds and sell goods. However, today’s changing shopping habits mean retailers must change 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’ll be closing on Thanksgiving Day, including Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Walmart. However, there’s still no official statement on the unpleasant (and oftentimes dangerous) Black Friday tradition. With all the risks, it’s hard to imagine that they will go through with it in its traditional form.

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Does this mean Black Friday is dead? Not if Target has a say in it. The company is bringing Black Friday to people earlier this year (without the mob), releasing deals as early as October. "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 for deal hunters and people who hate crowds.

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 season as "66% of shoppers are saying they expect to increase their online purchases this holiday season." On the 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. When it comes to small businesses, their fate looks ugly, but having an omnichannel strategy may help them have a higher chance of survival.

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

Airlines continue to run during the pandemic (in low numbers) while adopting ways to protect passengers and still make a profit, so we don’t need to think about full flights everywhere right now. Southwest, for example, uses hospital-grade disinfectants to clean each plane between every flight, spends six hours a night cleaning the planes, has installed hospital-grade HEPA filters to trap airborne particles and has limited the number of passengers allowed on each flight to maintain physical distancing measures.

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Photo Courtesy: Sandy Huffaker/Getty News/Getty Images

Meanwhile, others raised eyebrows and invited criticism that they couldn't care less about public safety. Spirit, American, United and Allegiant were flying at full capacity and refused to block seats. United made its position worse, calling blocked seats a "PR strategy." Some of these airlines have amended their policies as the pandemic has continued — American did eventually apply sustained virus-killing coatings to high-touch areas of its planes — but it still may not be enough.

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Social distancing measures on airlines may not last too long — but then again, they might. Southwest is keeping its seating pledge through at least October 31 (originally the end of September), while JetBlue will stop blocking seats after October 15 (originally after Labor Day). Initially, Delta’s policy was going to expire at the end of September, but CEO Ed Bastian revealed, "We're committed to blocking middle seats through September and expect to continue our policy beyond that date as well." In an interview with The Washington Post, JetBlue’s CEO confessed, "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%." Fortunately, the airlines have been amenable to extending their seating policies as the pandemic has waged on, and it's possible more extensions will be made.

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 need family time after months apart. Let’s face it, people want to see their families, and they’re going to find ways to do it, so health officials have prepared travel tips to try to keep everyone as safe as possible. First of all, check to see if the number of cases at your destination is high. If it is, you should really rethink your trip because more cases mean you have a higher risk of getting infected. You also need to check if the destination has travel requirements or restrictions. For instance, New York has been requiring travelers from certain states to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and this restriction could easily still be in place by the time the winter holidays roll around.

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Photo Courtesy: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Tips for driving: Check the routes and rest stops for your road trip because some areas may be closed. When you do need to stop, social distance yourself from other people 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.

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 cabin 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 needed to sanitize the seat, armrests, headrests, remotes, sidewalls and especially that gross tray table.

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Reminder: Once you reach your family, don’t assume it’s safe to hang out with them without masks and social distancing. As much as we want to spend time with them like the good old days, we should take every step 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.