Fewer Thanksgiving travelers, but some take flight despite health officials’ warnings – The Mercury News

Gone are the long lines for airport security, the backed-up traffic greeting family members visiting for Thanksgiving and the chaotic ritual of jostling among crowds to pick up luggage.

As the Thanksgiving holiday week got underway Saturday, Bay Area airports were quiet, at times nearly empty — perhaps an encouraging sign travelers are heeding health officials’ pleas to avoid family gatherings that might risk further infections amid a nationwide coronavirus surge.

Still, tens of thousands of Californians were expected to fly and millions of others to hit the roads and rails this week despite the warnings.

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Jennifer Barlow prepares to board a plane for Louisiana, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, at San Francisco International Airport, as she travels home for Thanksgiving. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Lucy Warutumo, left, along with her nieces Tana Sidibeh, 6, and Mumbi Maina, and her nephew Talley Sidibeh, right, all from Dallas, Texas, wait for their ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • Sound

    The gallery will resume inseconds

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Logan Herman gets a hug from his mother, Dawn, while getting picked up at San Francisco International Airport after traveling home from college in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Cameron Janzen, of Costa Mesa, Calif., waits for his ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Travelers pass through San Francisco International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, the weekend before Thanksgiving, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: A solo traveler heads to the gates to depart from the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Nursing student Andrea Millett waits for family to pick her up at San Francisco International Airport after traveling home from college in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: A traveler enters San Francisco International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Passengers arrive at San Francisco International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, braving travel during a pandemic on the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Passengers arrive at San Francisco International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, braving travel during a pandemic on the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Custodian Jeff Williams vacuums the carpet at the almost isolated Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: View of the parking lot shows a lot of spots available compared to previous years during Thanksgiving week at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Travelers exit a BART train as they head to the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: A solo traveler heads to the gates to depart from the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Godwin Johnson, right, and his family, from left, daughter Helen, 13, son Aaron, 6, and wife Mabel Edwin, from Dallas, Texas, wait for their ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Travelers head to the gates to depart from the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Kevin Martinez, of Dallas, Texas, checks his cell phone while waiting for his ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Travelers exit the Oakland International Airport after arriving in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Sonia Saenz, left, from Whittier, and her friend Norma Naudin, from El Monte, wait for their ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

  • OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Godwin Johnson, right, and his family, from left, daughter Helen, 13, son Aaron, 6, and wife Mabel Edwin, from Dallas, Texas, wait for their ride after arriving at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Jennifer Barlow said she talked with her family about what precautions to take before her flight out of San Francisco International to visit family in Louisiana — including a father at higher risk from COVID-19 because of a pacemaker.

“They wanted me to get a COVID test before I left and when I arrived,” Barlow said, adding that she was able to take a test through her insurance. And for dinner, “we’ll be outside and six feet apart.”

She’s looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, particularly grandma’s stuffing, as well as seeing family, including some cousins that’ll be at the dinner.

“Otherwise I’d be here by myself,” she said.

Many travelers on Saturday felt confident protocols were in place to make travel safe and that steps they’d planned for before or after their flight would protect their relatives.

“I definitely considered driving, but it’s just a lot easier to fly,” said Cameron Janzen, a nursing student who took a full flight from Los Angeles to Oakland International on Saturday.

Janzen, who has followed news of the recent surge, said he doesn’t feel too nervous about gathering for Thanksgiving with extended family, which includes his parents, siblings and in-laws, as well as a niece and nephew.

“I get tested often, and I try to stay as safe as I can,” he said.

How many would-be travelers are feeling confident enough to take to the sky remains to be seen. Mineta San José International Airport expects about 125,000 travelers between Nov. 20 and 30, less than a quarter of the record 546,000 Thanksgiving travelers that passed through the airport during the same Thanksgiving period last year.

“Safety is the only message we want to convey to travelers right now,” John Aitken, the airport’s director of aviation, said in a statement. “We are confident in the steps our teams have put in place, but cannot overstate the importance of planning to follow safety protocols during travel.”

A spokesman for San Francisco International said there was too much uncertainty to make a prediction, but the airport is seeing about a quarter of the passengers it normally does this time of year. Last year, 491,690 travelers flew through the airport during the week of Thanksgiving, down from 500,317 in 2018. Oakland International did not release any travel predictions but the 363,952 passengers that flew through it in October were about a third of the number of travelers in October 2019, according to a news release.

Overall, Thanksgiving travel is expected to be down 13 percent in California, to 6.2 million — the anticipated 10 percent decline in Thanksgiving travel nationally is the largest since the 2008 Great Recession, according to AAA Northern California. The number of air travelers is expected to drop by almost half, to about 435,600. Travel by bus, train or cruise is expected to drop by three quarters, to about 47,000.

Nearly 5.8 million travelers are expected to drive, a 7 percent decrease from 2019. The non-profit motor club warned that Wednesday would likely be the busiest day on the roads.

“For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure,” AAA Northern California Spokesperson Sergio Avila said in a statement.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOVEMBER 21: Logan Herman waits for family to pick him up at San Francisco International Airport after traveling home from college in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Those conditions have been rapidly changing amid a nationwide third wave of cases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that “the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.” And on Saturday a new limited curfew went into effect in California counties in the state’s purple tier, closing non-essential work, travel and gatherings from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Despite the warnings and rising case counts, the allure of family and a home-cooked meal, and weariness after months under coronavirus restrictions, made the risks of travel and gatherings worthwhile for many.

Among them was Dallas resident Mumbi Maina, whose trip to Oakland International was actually her second visit to California in the past month. And she’s preparing to fly to her home country of Kenya before Christmas.

“We’re praying for the best, really,” Maina said. “I’m really trying to live life. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but I want to enjoy my life and not be constrained. Life is short.

For Logan Herman, a freshman at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., traveling home for the holidays was never in question.

“I’m just really happy to see my family for Thanksgiving,” he said, adding he’ll either get tested or quarantine before meeting up with any childhood friends.

Herman was greeted with a warm hug by his masked mom, Dawn Herman, who said it was “awesome” to have her son back home where they will celebrate Thanksgiving with his brother but without grandparents, just to be safe.

“So happy to see him,” she said.