The sea of Thanksgiving travelers was already beginning to swell at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, as crowds of people snaked through check-in lines, waited for bags and piled along the curb.
Airport staff made periodic announcements about COVID-19 guidelines, at times calling out travelers who weren’t wearing masks: “You’re almost there, all the way up, nose, mouth and chin,” one said over the loudspeaker.
Thanksgiving is shaping up to be the busiest travel moment since the beginning of the pandemic as people try to reconnect with friends and loved ones. This holiday, an estimated 2 million people are expected to travel through LAX, double the number from last year but still a million fewer than in 2019, according to Heath Montgomery, spokesman for LAX.
But the growing crowds also bring new coronavirus dangers. While cases in California are trending down, officials remain worried about a potential winter surge as cold weather sends more people indoors and holiday travel rebounds.
“This virus, this disease, is not taking the winter off,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week, noting that people should anticipate an increase in COVID-19 cases due to “an increase in potential stress on our system.”
“I don’t say that to alarm people. I don’t say that for any other reason than to level set with folks,” he said.
“It’s still scary, but I’m OK,” said María Elena Sánchez, 21, who was preparing to board a flight to visit her father in Kansas for two weeks. “Now that other people are vaccinated, I feel better about traveling. People are more careful.”
Montgomery said Friday and Sunday will likely be the busiest days pre-Thanksgiving, but the Sunday after the holiday is expected to top them all, with a projected 175,000 passengers.
“That’s still not pre-pandemic level, but it’s definitely the busiest we’ve been since early 2020,” he said.
Even with last year’s dismal travel numbers, California still headed into a brutal and deadly winter surge of COVID-19, which accelerated right after Thanksgiving.
This year, the circumstances are different: More than 72% of Angelenos and more than 70% of Californians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to The Times’ tracker.
Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, predicted a “minor surge, not something that may be major,” because of rising vaccinations and some immunity from previous infections.
But the possibility of transmission persists — particularly for the unvaccinated, Kim-Farley said. Cooler weather and more time spent indoors can increase risks. What’s more, L.A. County public health officials have warned that many people’s vaccine protections are waning.
Kim-Farley also noted that coronavirus transmission is not uniform and that some states and localities are seeing higher rates than others. For example, COVID-19 hospitalizations rose significantly in the Inland Empire and Central Valley in recent weeks, straining local healthcare systems.
“One thing people should be aware of is where they’re traveling, in order to be a little more cautious if they’re going into a place that has high levels of transmission,” Kim-Farley said.
With more travel and holiday gatherings likely in the weeks ahead, “now is the time” for unvaccinated people to think about getting their shots, he added.
Already on Thursday, some parking lots at LAX were full. Airport officials said passengers who plan to park for the holiday should consider booking spots ahead of time.
Matthew Reid, 29, arrived from New Jersey for a pre-Thanksgiving trip with friends. The group thought it would be smarter to gather a week before the Thanksgiving surge, giving them peace of mind to enjoy the holiday at home.
“We’re planning to have a light Thanksgiving because of COVID-19. We agreed it would be smart to keep things local,” he said.
A graduate student at Rutgers University, Reid said he’s still cautious about COVID-19 and generally adheres to guidelines and keeps gatherings small. But he and his friends are all vaccinated, so it’s a different feeling than last year, when anxiety loomed large.
“We were hunkering down last year, especially because there was no vaccine. There was a lot more anxiety,” he said. “You didn’t see anybody or go anywhere.”
For those who aren’t vaccinated, “staying home or staying local” makes the most sense, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a news briefing Thursday.
“I do think with travel, there’s a lot of risk. We urge people who are traveling to only travel if they’re fully vaccinated. It’s a recommendation, but it seems to make sense when there’s this much transmission going on across the country,” she said.
Los Angeles isn’t the only place bracing for a surge of travelers — and a potential surge of COVID-19 — as transportation numbers are also expected to soar nationwide.
The Transportation Security Administration projects that about 20 million passengers will fly during this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, more than twice last year’s total. The numbers still won’t beat the all-time high — about 26 million flew during the Thanksgiving period in 2019 — but they do represent a significant increase.
Even smaller airports such as Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino are expecting to see travel numbers climb to near pre-pandemic levels, officials said this week.
And drivers will also be busy, with the American Automobile Assn. projecting that 48.3 million Americans will hit the road for the November holiday, only about 3% less than pre-pandemic levels.
Despite the risks, experts said there are steps people can take to protect themselves and loved ones during the holidays, including simple measures such as washing hands, complying with federal mask mandates, following local vaccine ordinances and wiping down surfaces on airplanes and other high-contact areas. At-home COVID-19 tests, while not as reliable as lab tests, can also provide peace of mind in a pinch.
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said gatherings where all guests are vaccinated are fairly safe, particularly if anyone eligible for a booster shot has received one.
But get-togethers where some people are unvaccinated — either by choice or because of age or other factors — are riskier.
“It’s really important that if there are going to be unvaccinated people at the gathering, that the gathering does have some guardrails on it, some safety precautions, so that other individuals can feel comfortable,” she said.
Some of those “guardrails” include smaller gatherings with fewer people, or gatherings focused on outdoor activities such as bonfires.
“We might be a little rusty at this, but it’s just remembering that you want to make your guests feel comfortable, and that everybody has the option to politely decline the invitation,” Althoff added.
She also recommended that anyone planning to attend holiday gatherings limit their activities and exposure in the days before. Those who will be meeting with more vulnerable individuals can also take a rapid test the same day.
For some, it’s worth any effort to be together this Thanksgiving.
“Last year, I was worried, I was afraid. I didn’t travel,” La Puente resident Sandra Villa said as she waited to check in for a flight to Minneapolis.
She looked around to see everyone wearing masks and adhering to COVID-19 protection rules. That made her feel calm, she said.
It’s her first time traveling to see her daughter and three grandchildren in Minneapolis, and it’s a much-needed vacation after two years cooped up at home.
Villa got her booster shot last week, and though she did have some lingering concerns about safety, she focused on what the coming three weeks in Minnesota will bring: eating, enjoying her family’s company indoors and looking at the beautiful snow.
Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.