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

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Sep 21, 2020 9:22:35 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every year, the months leading up to the holidays add up to big spending and whirlwind activity for both companies and people. Families, health officials, retailers and airlines all start planning ahead for one of the busiest times to shop and 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? Coming up with an answer is sure to lead to some stressful moments for many families.

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Health officials continue to share predictions on what the future may hold for the holiday season and the months that follow, prompting Target, Walmart and other retailers to start implementing 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 global pandemic, so before you start booking flights and putting together a game plan for Black Friday, 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 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

The good news is that various vaccine research studies made significant progress in the summer of 2020, and each successfully completed phase brings us closer to a new vaccine — possibly even multiple vaccines. The bad news is all the progress to date still hasn't answered the question of how long a potential vaccine is likely to protect patients or how it will be administered efficiently to the public.

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Photo Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The conditions surrounding COVID-19 could 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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But just like the summer season, the holidays tempt families to gather, especially those suffering from quarantine-fatigue and those who live far away 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 guest list to determine if anyone has a greater than normal risk of exposure (someone in the medical field, for example).

After the lockdown and through the summer, a lot of people let their guard 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.

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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 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.

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 going to look 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. 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 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 are likely to be open for at least part of the day — but probably not with aisles full of one-day-only deals.

Could this be the death of Black Friday? Target says no, but then there's a twist. The company is bringing Black Friday to people earlier this year (without the mob), releasing 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 hate the crowds. Home Depot also announced a similar plan to run deals over a period of two months instead of on a single day.

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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. Additionally, increased online shopping makes the fate of small businesses look ugly, but developing an omnichannel strategy could increase their chance of survival.

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

Airlines continue to operate during the pandemic but with some significant changes. They are all focused on ways to protect passengers and still make a profit, but the specific steps they are taking vary by carrier. Southwest, for example, uses hospital-grade disinfectants to clean each plane between every flight and spends six to seven hours a night cleaning the planes. The airline has installed hospital-grade HEPA filters to trap airborne particles and continues to limit the number of passengers allowed on each flight by not booking the middle seat to maintain social distancing.

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Photo Courtesy: Sandy Huffaker/Getty News/Getty Images

Meanwhile, other airlines have 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 some policies as the pandemic 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.

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 has committed to blocking middle seats through October 15, but the CEO noted 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%." 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.

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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.

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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 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.

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.

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