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Thanksgiving crowds at Salt Lake City International Airport are smaller as experts urge people to stay home

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Oct. 27, 2020, file photo, passengers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport, in Salt Lake City. Some 13,000 passengers were expected at the airport on Wednesday, up from an average 10,000 during the pandemic.

The number of Utahns flying out of Salt Lake City International Airport for Thanksgiving suggests that state health officials achieved only mixed success as they urged residents to stay home and celebrate only with their immediate family to avoid spreading COVID-19.

On the day before Thanksgiving — usually the busiest travel day of the year — airport officials reported that about 13,000 Utahns were expected to show up at the airport’s front door to fly out.

The good news for health officials: “That compares to about 26,000 on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year,” or half as many, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.

However, air traffic has been down greatly amid the pandemic. Initially, it dropped by 65% in Salt Lake City. More recently, traffic has been at about 55% of pre-COVID levels.

So, “We’ve been seeing on average 10,000 people traveling each day” from local passengers arriving at the airport, Volmer said. The 13,000 on Wednesday “was slightly up, but nowhere near the levels of last year.”

In fact, “This is not the busiest day since the pandemic. We have had 14,000 since the pandemic and will probably see that many on Sunday” as people come home from the holiday, Volmer said. About the same number of passengers arrive as depart on a typical day.

In short, many Utahns are traveling despite warnings from health officials, but crowds are down far from previous levels.

Meanwhile, Volmer said the airport is taking extra steps to try to protect the health of those who do fly.

“We recognize that it’s a personal decision for people who are traveling during this pandemic,” she said. “So, what we’re doing is trying to make sure that all the passengers coming to the airport feel safe doing so.”

Among those steps is enforcing a rule that only ticketed passengers are allowed inside the airport — which prevents big welcome-home parties and other unnecessary crowds.

She notes the airport has staff posted at entrances to buildings “to make sure that everyone who is coming into the airport are ticketed passengers and that they are wearing masks. If they don’t have a mask, one will be provided.”

The airport has added numerous hand sanitizing stations throughout its facilities.

It placed stickers on every other chair in waiting areas suggesting that they remain vacant “so if passengers are not with others, they can make sure they can physically distance,” Volmer said.

The airport also has many plexiglass barriers as extra protection between passengers and workers at such places as security, concessions and ticket stands. Stickers on floors encourage social distancing at restaurants and in lines to board airplanes.

It also has such floor stickers around luggage carousels “to remind people when they’re picking up their bags to stay distant,” Volmer said.

With the slight uptick in holiday travelers, Volmer warns that travels who may not be used to the new first phase of the airport’s $4.1 billion rebuild project should give themselves more time than usual — since it is larger and often requires more walking than the old facility.

“We want to make sure they allow plenty of time because it is a totally new airport, new roadway, new facility and it’s bigger. So it’s going to take more time to navigate,” she said. “We really are encouraging passengers to make sure they get here those two hours in advance that airlines recommend prior to your flight departing.”

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