“If you are planning to travel or gather with other households for the holidays – we urge you to reconsider. Just one infection can cause an outbreak in your community, which could overwhelm our hospitals and put you and your loved ones at risk.” 

This plea comes from a joint video statement from the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—a coalition of Midwestern leaders looking to encourage residents to not travel during the holiday season. The Midwest governors’ coalition also released a similar video prior to Thanksgiving.

In recent months, the Midwest has become the center of attention as its daily case counts increased at higher rates than any other region. As Thanksgiving came and went, many worried that America’s heartland, with all of its traditions and family-centric gatherings, would see a surge of cases and deaths going into the holiday season. 

And while some cities across the nation are already seeing the effects of a post-Thanksgiving surge and while national numbers continue to rise (although post-holiday increases seem to vary by location), some Midwest states saw remarkable decreases in mobility from previous years, smaller-than-expected increases in travel and even have yet to see major increases in cases—although that doesn’t mean there weren’t adverse effects from those who did travel and gather. 

Ohio, for example, saw a steady increase in daily cases beginning around Dec. 5 (a little more than a week after the holiday), reached an all-time high on Dec. 8 and started a steady decline around Dec. 15. And, of course, cases still remain higher than at almost any point earlier this year, and as hospitals and resources remain strained, it’s important to take any good news with understanding of the pandemic’s ongoing severity.

Many states are issuing travel restrictions and recommendations specifically for the upcoming weeks. While some states such as California are encouraging anyone who enters or returns to the state to quarantine for 14 days, other states such as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Florida are more lax and have not mandated specific restrictions for this holiday season. Some states are specifically restricting travel from regions with a higher positivity rate. Ohio has issued a list of 14 states, including Ohio, that residents are encouraged to self-quarantine after traveling to. It is unclear how Ohio residents are expected to quarantine upon return from their own state, but any travel, even in-state, would warrant quarantine. 

This season, the Midwest is expected to see a significant decrease in the amount of travel compared to previous years. According to AAA officials, the region is expected to see a 27 percent drop in travel compared to 2019. But that doesn’t mean residents can ease up on following restrictions and guidelines, especially with the next round of holiday travel on the horizon. More travel is still expected to occur during this holiday season across the United States than other times during the pandemic. 

Thanksgiving travel can help us predict what to expect for this December holiday season. Nationally, travel over Thanksgiving weekend only decreased from 55.3 million in 2019 to 50.6 million in 2020. This number is still greater than some past years, such as in 2016, where we saw 49.29 million people travel throughout the United States on the holiday weekend. 

Based on these numbers, a slight decrease in travel can seem promising to slow the spread of the virus, but the decrease is not as significant as many leaders are hoping for.

Graphic by Anu Thapaliya and Anna DiAsio for Midstory.

As seen in the graph above, the number of people predicted to travel by automobile for the Thanksgiving holiday only decreased 4.3 percent from 49.9 million in 2019 to 47.8 million in 2020. The statistics from air travel do seem more promising, decreasing by 47.5 percent from 4.58 million in 2019 to 2.4 million in 2020. Still, the change from 2019 to 2020 for both air travelers and automobile travelers was only around 2 million. Air travel can be more dangerous for spread if regulations are not followed properly, but almost all travel is still considered unsafe. 

The use of public transportation, such as trains and buses, has seen even more significant decreases. Across the United States, there was a 76.2 percent decrease of people using public transportation with 1.5 million in 2019 and 353,000 in 2020 during the Thanksgiving weekend. In Midwestern states specifically, such as Ohio and Michigan, the use of public transportation continues to decrease, even into December. 

For example, in Ohio, mobility trends for places such as bus, subway, and train stations showed a 19 percent decrease compared to the baseline in January and February of 2020. A similar trend occurred in Michigan where there was a 32 percent decrease. In Ohio, the largest increase in mobility this year was throughout the summer months, but since then and even around Thanksgiving, mobility either decreased or minimally increased. Right before Thanksgiving, we saw a slight spike in visits to places like grocery stores and retail, but even mobility in residential areas increased only slightly.

While the entire country is expected to see more travel occur this holiday season than any other time during the pandemic, general trends in the Midwest have shown a decrease in travel compared to previous years. This is promising, but more significant decreases could further slow the spread of the virus, and residents should be more cautious than ever when making plans for the rest of the holiday season.


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