More Americans stayed home for Thanksgiving this year compared with last year — but by relatively small margins.
An NPR analysis of mobile phone location data showed that 42% of Americans with smartphones remained home, up from 36% last year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly urged people to avoid holiday travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the warnings, 13% of Americans still traveled a significant distance, the data showed, although that number was down from 17% last year.
Ali Mokdad, from the University of Washington, said that ideally, more people would have stayed home given the high case rates. "This level of travel will unfortunately lead to a rise in cases," said Mokdad, who is the chief strategy officer for Population Health.
Data, provided to NPR by SafeGraph, are based on tracking the locations of about 18 million mobile phones across the United States. NPR analyzed the anonymized data to determine the percentage of people who stayed at their "home" location for Thanksgiving as well as the percentage who traveled 31 miles or more.
Thanksgiving week is usually one of the busiest travel periods of the year, but 2020 was expected to end an 11-year trend of travel growth going back to the 2008-09 Great Recession. Car travel had been expected to decrease by at least 10%, while accounting for a higher overall proportion of travel, as fewer people were expected to fly, according to AAA.
In fact, air travel this year was less than half of what it was for the same holiday period in 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Despite the decrease, the number of air passengers hovered at around 1 million per day for a majority of the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the highest it has been since mid-March, when the pandemic began to ramp up in the U.S. Air traffic has been steadily increasing the last few months, even as the country recorded some of its highest new daily coronavirus case counts. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day alone, the U.S. saw about 1 million new cases.
TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein noted there had been no issues with passenger volume on Thanksgiving Day. To account for more travelers during the travel period, the TSA "opened additional checkpoint lanes to help ensure low wait times and allow for social distancing."
SafeGraph's metrics cannot capture what people did when they left home or what safety measures they took to mitigate their risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus. SafeGraph's data also cannot account for whether those who left home went to houses within their social bubble.
If you were one of the people who traveled for Thanksgiving, it's not too late to reduce the risk involved. Quarantining, wearing a mask near others, limiting interactions outside the house and getting tested if any symptoms develop can all reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
"The best way to prevent further spread of the disease is to stay home, avoid gatherings, and wear masks through the holiday season," Mokdad said. "It's a difficult time for everyone, but we have to do our best to protect one another."
SafeGraph's data are anonymized, meaning data show overall trends, not data from individual mobile devices. SafeGraph determines a person's home location based on where the person's device was primarily located overnight during the previous six weeks. Even if people traveled the week before Thanksgiving, they would be recorded as being outside their home on Thanksgiving Day. SafeGraph is one of several companies that have provided data to researchers during the coronavirus crisis. The data from SafeGraph, which says it tracks only users who have "opted in" via mobile apps, have been cited by numerous agencies and media outlets during the pandemic, including the CDC, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
Sean McMinn contributed to this report.