Despite health warnings, Utahns ranked No. 1 in continental U.S. for Thanksgiving road trips

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Traffic moves along I-15 in Salt Lake City in this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo. Despite warnings from health officials, Utahns ranked No. 1 in the nation for taking Thanksgiving road trips compared to last year.

Utahns may have been the worst among residents of the continental United States for heeding health officials’ pleas to stay home during the Thanksgiving holiday to help slow the spread of COVID-19, new data suggests.

The number of road trips of at least 50 miles taken by Utahns did drop by 13.9% the day before Thanksgiving and on the holiday itself compared with a year earlier — but that was the lowest decrease in any of the continental states, according to the travel data company Arrivalist and its Daily Travel Index. Hawaii was worse with a 7.6% increase.

The next-worst state behind Utah was Nevada, with a significantly bigger 20.4% drop in road trips, followed by Montana at 24.5%.

Nationally, road trip travel was down 35% over the Thanksgiving holiday from last year — or 2.5 times more than in Utah.

(Courtesy of Arrivalist) Data from the travel data company Arrivalist show that Thanksgiving road trips decreased the least in Utah this year compared to other states nationally.

The drop was greatest in the Northeast, where nearly all states saw less than half the road trip activity of the previous year. Vermont had the largest drop in the nation at 66.4%, followed by Rhode Island at 64.9% and Connecticut at 57.6%.

Holiday travel “appears to have taken a back seat to people’s desire to protect themselves and each other from a surge of COVID-19 cases,” said Arrivalist CEO Cree Lawson.

The company uses representative GPS data to measure trips of 50 miles or more initiated on those days. It did not include road trips of less than 50 miles.

The road trip drop nationally for Thanksgiving was a departure from previous holidays during the pandemic this year, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, when road trip activity rivaled or exceeded the previous year.

Arrivalist said road trips observed over Thanksgiving made it the least traveled major holiday of the year, with less activity than Memorial Day.

“From a travel perspective, Thanksgiving 2020 looks just like any other weekend in 2020 — and a light one at that,” Lawson said. “It’s a bitter pill today but travel demand overall is as strong as ever, and I expect delivering a vaccine will give the industry a shot in the arm.”

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the Thanksgiving road trip data suggests that a rebound of the travel industry is still far away.

“The pandemic trends are clearly not going to allow a broad reopening of travel nearly as soon as we hoped,” he said. “It’s heartening to see Americans making the decision to keep safe, but the situation is exceptionally painful for travel businesses and workers who are going to need substantial federal assistance in order to survive until a recovery can begin.”

The drop in road trips nationally came after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pleaded with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving and not to spend the holiday with people from outside their household.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert tweaked orders in Utah before the holiday, however, so that they would no longer have to limit social gatherings to people in their own households, although he urged caution.

On Sunday, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, thanked those Utahns who did decide to stay home over the holiday.

“A lot of Utahns really took this to heart and really said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to change my Thanksgiving Day plans for the sake of public health and to keep myself and my community safe,’” he said. “There are so many people — patients and co-workers and friends — that just said, ‘Nope, not this year.’ And those are the people we want to say thank you to for really changing the way you celebrate Thanksgiving this year.”

Air travel was also down over the holiday in Utah compared to last year — but up compared to typical days and weekends recently.

On the day before Thanksgiving — typically the busiest air travel day of the year — and on Sunday after the holiday, Salt Lake City International Airport reported that about 13,000 local travelers arrived at its front door (and the number of passengers arriving here usually mirror that), said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.

Last year, about 26,000 local travelers arrived on each day, she said — showing that air travel dropped by half this year.

However, she said, that is up compared to the 10,000 people who had been traveling on typical days recently.”