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Travel down more than 70 percent at airports across New England during Thanksgiving week

Despite warnings to stay home this year for the holiday, Boston Logan International Airport was bustling on the eve before Thanksgiving. Still, the number of air travelers in New England declined dramatically compared to last year, according to the TSA.
Despite warnings to stay home this year for the holiday, Boston Logan International Airport was bustling on the eve before Thanksgiving. Still, the number of air travelers in New England declined dramatically compared to last year, according to the TSA.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Nearly 150,000 people headed to New England airports in the week leading up to Thanksgiving — a dramatic decline in travel numbers compared to last year, as millions of people across the country heeded public health officials’ warnings to stay home with coronavirus cases climbing.

There were 147,935 travelers combined at six major New England airports from Friday through Wednesday — down more than 70 percent compared to the same time period last year, when nearly 500,000 people headed to those airports, according to Transportation Security Administration officials.

The report looked at Logan International Airport in Boston, Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, Burlington International Airport in Vermont, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire, T. F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, and Portland International Jetport in Maine. A breakdown of data on the number of travelers at each airport was not provided.

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This year’s numbers defied historical Thanksgiving travel trends.

“Around the holidays, people tend to travel more, so we expect numbers to increase [then],” said Daniel Velez, a TSA spokesman.

The highest number of single-day travelers in New England during Thanksgiving week so far — 27,761 people — was last Saturday, according to the TSA. Last year, the Friday before Thanksgiving was the week’s busiest travel day with just under 93,000 people.

At Logan, the number of passengers has been down about 80 percent consistently “for several months now,” according to Jennifer Mehigan, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority. Before the pandemic, the airport regularly accommodated between 120,000 and 140,000 travelers a day, she said.

Airport staff was ready for the influx in passengers during Thanksgiving week despite the numbers being lower than last year, Mehigan said.

“Typically, the Thanksgiving holiday does tend to be a busy time at the airport, though nothing has been normal in this pandemic,” she said.

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At airports across the country, travel was down nearly 60 percent this past week compared to last year, according to TSA data. More than 5.9 million people flew this week compared to about 14.4 million last year.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 on a plane isn’t the first concern of health experts, according to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. Compared to the number of flights since the pandemic began, there have been “relatively few” transmission events, she said.

“It’s the fact that people are moving around the country,” Doron said.

With different rates of infection in communities across the United States, Doron’s worry is that people who travel to areas where COVID-19 is more prevalent may contract the virus and bring it back, and vice versa.

“To me, that’s the main reason not to travel,” Doron said.

Megan Ranney, associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, told the Globe on Monday that, “you could be traveling when you’re asymptomatic and infectious, and you’ve now spread the virus across state lines or across towns.”

Doron said she was concerned when she saw long lines at testing facilities in the week leading up to Thanksgiving — “longer than we’ve ever seen before” — suggesting that people were getting tested to meet travel restrictions or attend gatherings.

Coronavirus cases spiked across the country over the time leading up to Thanksgiving, prompting public officials to issue warnings against travel for the holidays. As a result of such gatherings, experts predict a surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

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“Right now, we are looking at the real possibility of a second wave that could overwhelm our health care system,” Doron said.

Despite higher travel volumes during the holiday season, the overall decline in travel was expected among transportation officials, Velez said.

However, Thanksgiving week still proved to be the busiest days of the year nationwide — by far.

“We have hit the 1 million passenger mark three times within the last week,” Velez said of the number of air travelers nationwide.

For comparison, more than 900,000 air travelers were recorded twice during the week leading up to Labor Day. In the week before the Fourth of July, more than 700,000 people were recorded twice.

Based on last year’s pattern, officials expect Sunday’s numbers to be similar to last Saturday’s as people return from holiday destinations.

And transportation officials expect similar numbers of people to take flights around the December holidays but acknowledged the difficulty of making predictions at this time.

“Numbers are hard to predict throughout a pandemic. However, we do expect an uptick in travel during this time period,” Velez said.

With the possibility of a vaccine being approved soon, Doron hopes people will realize the benefits of hunkering down now and stopping the spread, so they can resume traveling for holiday gatherings in the future.

“People are wanting to be with family so badly,” she said. “Hopefully [the possibility of a vaccine] gives people hope that this is the only time public officials will be asking them” to stay home for the holidays.

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Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.