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Holiday travel down as pandemic forces Thanksgiving dinners to be held remotely

Domenick Rafter of Ozone Park, Queens, said Wednesday that while this holiday will be difficult for his family because of the pandemic, he sees it as only a temporary change to his family's Thanksgiving tradition. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Long Islanders can expect fewer traffic jams than usual this Thanksgiving week, with transportation officials predicting the coronavirus pandemic will keep many would-be travelers home and the roads, rails and airports quiet.

With the pandemic resurging in New York and nationwide, the AAA is projecting at least a 10% reduction in travel by car, train and other means this week, which would be the greatest single-year drop in more than a decade.

Increasing COVID-19 case counts, travel restrictions and rising unemployment are all likely fueling that travel slump, transportation officials say. Concerns over the virus spreading in mass transit may also play a role, despite increased cleaning, social distancing and mask protocols put in place on trains, planes and buses.

But the projected drop in travel may be for the best, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo predicting a "tremendous spike" in cases after the holiday.

For Long Islanders who are nevertheless venturing out this week, here's what they can expect:

Roads

Traffic could be lighter this week than in years past, but not by much, according to AAA.

The association projects a 4.3% drop in Thanksgiving car travel nationwide compared with last year, from 49.9 million travelers to 47.8 million.

Still, AAA predicts most holiday travelers will take cars over planes or trains.

"For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the safety and flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure," said AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr.

Those who do drive for the holiday will benefit from gas prices nearly 50 cents below where they were this time last year, the association said.

Despite the drop in traffic, car travel still remains potentially dangerous this week, according to the National Safety Council.

Drunken driving is always worse around holidays, according to the council, and less traffic on the roads this year has spurred high levels of reckless driving that could cause additional road deaths this Thanksgiving week.

Rails

Train travel will be similarly light, transit officials project.

The LIRR typically runs 17 extra trains on the holiday to accommodate the crush of Long Islanders traveling to and from Manhattan for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But with the event confined to a single block of 34th Street this year, and no spectators allowed in person, the railroad will be sticking to a usual holiday schedule, a spokeswoman said.

Ridership has been down by more than 70% in recent days compared to last year, LIRR data shows.

Thanksgiving is usually the busiest week of the year on Amtrak, spokesman Jason Abrams said. But business on the rail system has been at about 25% of pre-pandemic levels, and Amtrak expects ridership to stay below average this week too.

Air

Airports have not been spared the travel slump this year, and Thanksgiving will not be much different, airport administrators say.

The holiday could bring more travelers to Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in Queens, officials said Thursday, but that'd be an anomaly in a year when they've otherwise been scarce.

"There might be a bump over the next week or two, but beyond that it's still precipitously low," Kevin J. O'Toole, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board chairman, told reporters Thursday.

Passenger volumes at Port Authority airports were down 77% earlier this month compared with last November, authority executive director Rick Cotton said Thursday.

Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma has faced a similar drop in activity.

About 11 planes are taking off from the airport each day, down from 18 last year, airport Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken said. The week of Thanksgiving is not likely to be much different.

"We're not going to see the volume that we see in the past," she said. "But I do think that there are folks out there that want and need to travel."

Travel plans nixed

The pandemic has scrambled the itineraries of those usually heading to or from Long Island for the holiday.

If not for COVID-19, Mario Joseph of Woodsburgh would likely be making a 4- to 6-hour drive down to Maryland with his wife and children to spend Thanksgiving with extended family. Not this year, however.

"One dinner isn't worth the potential health ramifications, no matter how good the turkey," said Joseph, 49.

Domenick Rafter's family came to a similar conclusion in canceling their typical 20- to 25-person Thanksgiving celebration in Merrick.

But the family found a creative solution to being together while being apart on Thursday. Rafter, 37, of Ozone Park, Queens, said he, his father and aunts will still cook for everyone, with his cousins delivering meals to family members across Long Island.

Rafter said he was not too put out over the arrangement, as it is only a temporary change to his family's Thanksgiving tradition. Plus there are upsides to staying in on the holiday, Rafter said, like not having to drive home on the Belt Parkway afterward.

"You always hit traffic," he said.

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