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Traffic picks up at Tampa International for Thanksgiving despite coronavirus concerns

Though fewer people are leaving home for the holidays, travel is still up since March
The scene at the baggage claim area at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. With the holidays approaching numbers are down from last year but still much busier than we have since March.
The scene at the baggage claim area at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. With the holidays approaching numbers are down from last year but still much busier than we have since March. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2020
Updated Nov. 24, 2020

TAMPA — In a normal year, Jaime Corigliano’s extended family would visit her and her family in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. But with the pandemic this year, that’s switched, and the 44-year-old flew to Florida with her two kids Tuesday.

They decided not to visit in the summer like they normally would, because of COVID-19. And they went back and forth about traveling for the holidays. But Corigliano’s nephew just finished his military service, and they hadn’t seen him in years, so they decided to make the journey.

Corigliano and her two kids got tested for COVID-19, and masked up for the flight. When they arrived at the airport, it was empty, making Corigliano feel more at ease.

“It feels really safe,” she said. “I was surprised.”

According to the Associated Press, 3 million people passed through U.S. airport checkpoints Friday through Sunday. The jump in airline traffic comes despite a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory last week urging people not to travel this Thanksgiving.

In the Tampa Bay area, air travel is up in line with the national trend, as the tourism and travel industry try to strike the right balance between supporting the economic recovery and encouraging safe practices to locals and visitors.

This past Sunday, Tampa International Airport saw almost 40,000 passengers, a record since March. Spokeswoman Emily Nipps said normally on peak days around Thanksgiving, the airport would see 80,000 passengers a day. This weekend, it could have around 50,000 passengers on a given day, though it’s hard to predict, she said.

While airport leaders want to see business return, they’re also being cautious, Nipps said.

“We also are very aware of the spike in cases,” she said. “The focus this year is on safety.”

This year, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport is offering 156 flights during Thanksgiving week, as compared to 168 flights last year. It did not have passenger data available. In response to a question about whether the Centers for Disease Control advisory had changed the airport’s approach, spokesperson Yvette Aehle said in an email that the airport’s messaging has remained the same throughout the pandemic.

“PIE has multiple signs all over the terminal encouraging social distancing, free masks throughout the terminal, and signage reminding customers that there is a mandatory mask ordinance in place locally,” she said in an email. “Airlines require mask wearing on aircraft.”

On Tuesday, the arrivals area at Tampa International Airport was far from crowded. Most wore masks and kept their distance from others.

Kayla Sconiers, 19, flew home on United Airlines from Rochester, N.Y., where she attends the Eastman School of Music. She wore a sweater representing her college and two masks.

On the first flight of her journey, all the seats were filled. But on the connecting flight to Tampa, there was an empty seat between passengers. She expressed concerns that some people were not following social distancing guidelines, but noted that all the workers wore masks and gloves.

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“Everybody was nice,” she said. One of the scarier parts of the trip was simply flying alone for the second time, she said.

Troy Howard, 52, flew Southwest Airlines from Chicago to visit family. He’s already traveled for his job working on cell phone towers and encouraged people to use common sense when traveling. Still, he was surprised to see that all the seats on his flight were filled. In many ways, travel hasn’t felt much different since before the pandemic, Howard said.

“It was kind of the same,” he said.

Nationwide, AAA expects 50 million Americans to travel during the Thanksgiving season, a 9.7 percent decrease from last year. The organization predicts that 2.76 million Floridians will travel, a 5.4 percent decrease from 2019 and the lowest Thanksgiving travel numbers since 2017.

Local tourism leaders say it’s hard to predict how the pandemic could affect overall holiday travel in the Tampa Bay region.

“We’re seeing some mixed signals,” said Leroy Bridges, vice president of digital and communications at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

The tourism agency has been monitoring checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration, which indicates travel has increased. At the same time, leaders at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater have been relying on data from Destination Analysts, which showed decreased consumer confidence in the safety of holiday travel this year. Bridges expects that many people will likely make their travel decisions last-minute.

“I think people are going to be reading the room a lot,” he said.

Last November, Pinellas County hotel occupancy rates were at 65.3 percent. In October of this year, occupancy rates were at 52 percent and the Thanksgiving numbers remain to be seen.

During Thanksgiving, Visit Tampa Bay, which promotes tourism in Hillsborough County, usually records hotel occupancy rates around the high 60s to mid 70s, president and CEO Santiago Corrada said. In November 2019, the agency recorded a hotel occupancy rate of 73.8 percent. So far this month, the hotel occupancy rate has averaged 47.7 percent. Santiago said it’s promising to see more people take to the skies this holiday season.

Visit Tampa Bay has focused on safer travel this year. While destination marketing is usually more aggressive, it has been relatively subtle this year, Corrada said. He said the tourism organization has been monitoring where COVID-19 cases are surging, and has not been marketing to those areas during spikes.

“It is a tightrope that you walk,” Corrada said.

Bridges said much of the agency’s messaging this year has focused on education about mask mandates and safer travel practices, as the organization balances both health and economic concerns.

“Both are very important and we don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he said.

Dr. John Sinnott, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital, said there are steps people can take to make traveling safer. He said research has shown that airplanes generally have good filtration systems, so the most important thing to consider is social distancing in the airport itself. Similarly, stops for food and gas on road trips can bring people into contact with others who might be sick, Sinnott said. At hotels, pay online to avoid the front desk, as for room service rather than using indoor dining, and avoid gyms, saunas and pools.

It’s a good idea to get tested, and avoid large family gatherings, Sinnott said.

“There are too many catastrophes coming out of that,” he said.

Travelers can also monitor cases in the area they’re planning to visit and check states’ travel restrictions to see if they require quarantining after travel. When considering whether or not to travel, Sinnott advised considering the age and health of one’s relatives.

“You need to look at your family,” he said. “You can’t just think of yourself. You need to think of the family members who would be at increased risk of illness.”

Staff writer Margo Snipe contributed to this report.

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