Memorial Day has long been understood as the unofficial start of the U.S. summer, but during the pandemic, it has also come with canceled events, bans on large gatherings and news of lagging vaccination rates.
This holiday weekend, however, during one of the country’s traditionally busiest travel periods, more than 39 million Americans are expected to take to the skies and roads, according to estimates by AAA, the automobile owners group.
“We’re approaching prepandemic numbers,” said Andrew Gobeil, a spokesman for Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport. He said on Friday that he expected more than 2 million passengers between Thursday and Wednesday.
“It’s an honest appraisal of where we stand,” he said. “Everyone is pretty thrilled.”
Los Angeles International Airport is expecting around 200,000 passengers a day, about 40 percent more from Memorial Day weekend last year. “We’re not back to normal here,” said Heath Montgomery, an airport spokesman, adding that passenger volume was still down about 25 percent from 2019.
Last year, some experts, including Dan Diekema, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, were hopeful that the holiday weekend would mark the beginning of the end to the threat of the virus in the United States. “In retrospect, I was far too optimistic,” he said in an interview on Friday, adding that he has since stopped making predictions. “I could not imagine the tragedy that would ensue over the past year.”
The virus has continued to spread, as variants emerge that are able to sicken even those who are fully vaccinated. Another Omicron subvariant became dominant this week and known cases have climbed.
In 2020, when the U.S. was on the cusp of recording 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus in late May, officials urged Americans not to travel for the weekend. State reopenings were emerging but many parades and other large gatherings were canceled. In 2021, the known death count was nearing 600,000, but the widening availability of vaccines, along with the federal guidance that it was safe for fully vaccinated people to take their masks off in most indoor settings, inspired public gatherings to return. Some concerns then shifted to sold-out hotel rooms, lifeguard shortages and a scarcity of chlorine tablets for backyard pools.
This year, Memorial Day observations are not being scrapped nationwide. In recent weeks, confirmed daily U.S. cases have been rising and are believed to be undercounted. While new deaths are relatively low, the total number of known U.S. Covid deaths recently surpassed one million.
Health officials in the Biden administration continue to warn of risks especially to more vulnerable people, but federal health guidance has shifted to focus on the stress to health care systems. Last month, a federal judge struck down a mask mandate on public transport and the country’s largest airlines promptly followed suit, ending a mask requirement after nearly two years of the practice.
Only about 62 percent of Americans 18 and older had received at least one shot of the vaccine this time last year. And while 73 percent of people age 18 to 64 are now fully vaccinated, with most people age 65 and older inoculated, according to federal data, the youngest children are still not yet eligible for vaccination and officials have worried about lagging booster rates.
Many governors have declared in recent months that the virus was, or would soon become, endemic in the United States, akin to flu season with a constant or expected presence. “If you believe we’re at a point where we would call this endemic, it’s not a place we’d want to be,” Dr. Diekema said.
Experts still recommend opting for outdoor gatherings or continuing to wear a mask for indoor group settings.
“My perspective last year probably included some degree of underestimation of the virus’s capacity for rapid change and adaptation,” Dr. Diekema said. “And overestimation of our ability as a society to sustain public health measures.”