How Is Covid-19 Impacting 2021’s Holiday Season?

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Every year, the winter-holiday months add up to big spending and a whirlwind of activity for companies and consumers alike. 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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created detailed-travel guidelines to further mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

2020 was a particularly challenging year for families who were desperate to visit their loved ones. A massive influx of travelers caused airlines to experience large bumps in traffic; 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. Airlines have become much better equipped throughout 2020 and 2021, with services like American Airlines implementing multiple travel restrictions to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Long-distance traveling is much more viable for commuters, provided travelers adhere to safety precautions.

The CDC also released new guidelines for the Winter holidays in October. Advice ranges from general tips like wearing warm, well-fitting clothes to specific considerations such as requiring COVID tests for all visitors. 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 2021’s holiday season.

The Important Lessons From Summer Travel

Summer travel offered a preview of what might happen as people travel during the holiday season. America experienced another substantial surge in COVID-19 cases during the summer of 2021. 2020 also saw a spike in COVID-19 cases during its summer season, though the details surrounding these surges are drastically different. Three viable vaccines were available by the time summer rolled in this year. However, the number of 7-day average cases exceeded 79,000 this year as opposed to 2020’s 7-day average of 66,784. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong attributed the stark increase of COVID cases to “wild abandon”; though vaccines were available, many Americans acted less prudently as businesses, movie theaters, and theme parks reopened.

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Travelers must remain vigilant as the winter holiday season encroaches upon us. People who aim to visit loved ones cross-country or overseas should follow the CDC’s guidelines. It’s also advised to get tested before and after you travel internationally and to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

What Health Officials Say About the Holidays

Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson each offer COVID-19 vaccines with considerable efficacy rates. According to data gathered from multiple clinical trials, Moderna is 94.1% effective at combating COVID-19 infections in adults who are 18 or older. Pfizer boasts a 95% effectiveness rate, prompting the CDC to approve this vaccine earlier this year. The CDC also endorsed the administration of low-dosage Pfizer shots to children between the ages of 5 and 11 years old in early November. These resources should continue to protect travelers during the holidays this year, though gaining access to them was certainly an uphill battle.

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On November 20, 2020, Pfizer filed for an Emergency Use Authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which would allow the vaccine to be used in an emergency capacity to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine on December 11, 2020, which allowed 6 million doses to make their way to cities around the United States within 24 hours.

The holiday season was in full swing, causing the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to worsen. Daily COVID-19 cases in the United States rose to more than 195,000 — an all-time high that saw state leaders and health officials scramble to enact new policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus once more. That was compounded by the fact that the 2020 winter season presented its own unique challenges, with more time spent indoors and a run of holidays that typically involved 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.”

Just like the summer season, the winter holidays tempted families to gather, especially those dealing with quarantine fatigue and those who lived far away from each other. Health experts remained warry of large gatherings under the same roof during the holidays and suggested taking extra precautions, like getting tested and assessing the guest list to determine if anyone had 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 guards down. In the wake of renewed shelter-in-place orders during the autumn of 2020, many Americans became restless once more, 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 were worried about holiday gatherings, especially indoor meet-ups. They advised people to stay at least 6 feet apart from each, 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. 

Many of these precautions still apply as the 2021 winter holidays near. People should continue to wear their masks in public places and “avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces”. However, we have become much more knowledgeable and much better equipped to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Much of the onus to create safe spaces for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities is on us.

How Retailers Are Preparing for the Holiday Season

Many people statistically shopped in person less during 2020, causing the notoriously frantic holiday shopping season to look different last 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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Just like last year, many major retailers have announced they will not be open on Thanksgiving Day, including Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Walmart. However, many of these same big-name stores will re-open on Black Friday — undoubtedly intent on attracting buyers with discounted goods. Most Black Friday sales occurred without incident last year, as many shoppers opted to capitalize on Cyber Monday or simply order their gifts at full price online. Extensive item shortages also suggest that Black Friday sales prices won’t be worth the potential safety risks this year.

Could this be the death of Black Friday? Target says no, but then there’s a twist. The company initiated Black Friday sales events early in 2020, releasing deals as early as October instead of waiting for a single day (and inciting mobs in the process). “[2020] 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.” Target has once again adopted that plan in 2021, rolling out Black Friday deals in waves to discourage shoppers from risking their health for a sale.

Ultimately, 2021 will be another “add to cart” kind of year. COVID-19 has inadvertently caused the e-commerce industry to increase in value by more than $26.7 trillion dollars. On one hand, increased online shopping keeps the virus from spreading. On the other hand, more virtual orders 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.

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 also installed hospital-grade HEPA filters to trap airborne particles and required customers to wear appropriate face coverings throughout their entire travel experience with Southwest.

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Spirit, American, United and Allegiant airlines previously flew at full capacity and refused to block seats during the summer of 2020. United made its position even worse by calling blocked seats a “PR strategy.” All 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 the airline industry still lacks one consistent plan that each company must follow. As a result, every airline has its own distinct policies.

American Airlines has recently made headlines for offering holiday bonus pay to its pilots. The pilots’ union staunchly rejected this proposal, chiding American Airlines for booking too many flights at once and overworking employees during the summer. If you intend to travel by plane this winter, consider which airlines have taken steps to combat COVID-19 and who have also prioritized the health of their patrons and employees.

How to Stay Safe During Road and Air Travel

People want to see their families, especially amid another year dominated by COVID-19, 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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You also need to determine if your destination has travel requirements or guidelines in place. Each state has different policies in effect which means that you’ll likely be subject to some restrictions upon your arrival. New York put an end to its mandatory quarantine for domestic travelers this year, but other travel regulations are still in effect.

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.

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, 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.