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New COVID-19 surge dashes travel industry's hopes for July 4 weekend

New COVID-19 surge dashes travel industry's hopes for July 4 weekend
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The travel and tourism industry is bracing for another dismal holiday weekend.

Independence Day promises to be no better than Memorial Day, perhaps even worse. The recent surge in coronavirus cases in states across the U.S. is expected to keep more Americans homebound over the July Fourth weekend.

Projections for travel and spending this weekend are a reversal of sorts from just a month ago, when industry leaders were hopeful that the fight against COVID-19 would have turned a corner by the Fourth of July, allowing businesses to salvage what's left of the summer.

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Instead, the spike in COVID-19 cases has many households debating whether it’s worth it to spend the weekend away from home.

“When it comes to summer, we’re typically so excited to take time off and just get away that we book these trips in any given year months in advance. That’s not the case this year,” AAA spokeswoman Jeanette Casselano told The Hill, adding that people “want to know that when they make a decision to travel, they’re not going to have to cancel.”

AAA is expecting the number of trips this summer to decline for the first time since 2009, when the U.S. was just beginning to emerge from the Great Recession.

AAA found that among those who are traveling more than 50 miles from home this year, the majority are making their plans less than a week in advance, a likely effect of the volatility surrounding the coronavirus.

“People have this wait-and-see approach,” Casselano said.

The travel industry, however, doesn’t like what it sees so far.

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The American Hotel & Lodging Association found in a recent survey conducted by Morning Consult that only 44 percent of Americans are planning on taking an overnight trip this year.

The U.S. Travel Association said domestic trips are likely to fall 30 percent this year and hit the lowest level since 1991, when the U.S. was in a recession. The U.S. entered its coronavirus recession in February.

Mahmood A. Khan, professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech University, said Americans are likely to travel even less than they did over Memorial Day weekend due to the uptick in coronavirus cases.

“I think this new spike is now making people think twice about going out,” Khan said.

Travel fears could also escalate as more people hear about the number of states reverting back to previous coronavirus restrictions.

Arizona, California, Florida and Texas have all reimposed restrictions on indoor dining, bar occupancy or recreational activities following COVID-19 spikes.

“Most likely people will not travel far away from their home and they will be mainly using their cars rather than using airlines or rather than other types of transportation,” Khan said.

Domestic air travel has shown signs of increased demand recently. Last weekend, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened more than 1.8 million passengers, nearly double the amount from Memorial Day weekend. 

But last week’s announcement by American Airlines that it would start operating planes at full capacity — no longer blocking off 50 percent of the main cabin — sparked backlash from public health officials. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said at a Senate hearing there was “substantial disappointment with American Airlines.” 

The airline industry defended the decision to fill flights, arguing that maintaining social distancing isn’t possible on planes anyway.

The airline industry and TSA are encouraging people to fly, stressing the sanitation side of things and social distancing inside airports.

The industry has another reason to encourage more passengers to get on planes: 42 percent of their fleets are idled and passenger volume is down by 80 percent, according to Airlines for America, an industry trade group.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Tuesday that the agency has implemented social distancing at checkpoints in airports and opened more security lanes to maintain it, but agents do not take passengers’ temperatures, nor are they required to wear masks, even though major airlines require them on planes.

With July 4 shaping up to be a disappointing weekend for many summer travel and tourism businesses, optimism now turns to Labor Day.

Khan predicted that travel, particularly by car, will increase by then.

“I think people will be obligated to travel because the schools are going to open. The universities are opening and so on,” Khan said. “If they are taking the children to school or they are going to offices, I think they will feel much more comfortable.”