US-NEWS-CORONAVIRUS-CALIF-TRAVEL-LA

From left to right: Tim Mulroy of Rancho Santa Margarita, California; his wife, Christina; Tucker, their Aussie Labradoodle; son Liam, 13; son Levi, 5; and son Zack, 9, make their way through the Southwest Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday.

LOS ANGELES – Airports are seeing steady increases in travelers determined to spend Christmas with family and friends.

Coronavirus testing centers are seeing brisk business, including from some people who want to know whether they have the virus before attending holiday events.

And last-minute shoppers are still out looking for that perfect gift.

To the alarm of California health officials, Christmas is looking an awful lot like Thanksgiving, when where social gatherings put an already unprecedented surge of the coronavirus into overdrive. The Thanksgiving “superspreader” events helped fill hospitals with COVID-19 patients, forcing more restrictions on businesses and pushing the health care network to the brink.

But even the most dire public health warnings seemed to have failed to sink in. And in some cases, they are  no match for the basic human need to spend time with loved ones, maintain family traditions and turn to others for support during challenging times.

Officials have already said that hospitals will likely have to make difficult decisions in the coming weeks about which patients will get the critical care that could mean the difference between life and death. 

The further spread of COVID-19 during Christmas gatherings would only prolong the crisis, officials said.

“We really can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Thanksgiving. ... Another spike in cases from the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system, and ultimately will mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.

“Our hospitals are already over capacity, and the high quality medical care we’re accustomed to in L.A. County is beginning to be compromised as our front-line health-care workers are beyond stretched to the limit.”

But that message was not resonating at airports.

“Almost no one has caught COVID on a plane,” said Andrew Connors, who stood in a security line at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday morning with his daughter, Meikah.

All around them, the terminal buzzed as masked passengers queued up for security pat-downs, airport employees wiped surfaces with fervor and roller bags rumbled across the floor.

Connors said Meikah, 11, was preparing to travel alone to Marysville, Ohio, to spend Christmas with her mother. Although he was initially reluctant to put his daughter on a plane, he said he felt reassured after reading about onboard safety protocols and air-filtration methods.

“We’re probably going to make a snowman when I get there,” she said.

She joins more than 3 million passengers who have passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints in the last three days, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.

The agency reported just over 1 million people each day – on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – compared with 501,000 nationwide passengers on a single day two weeks ago. Prior to Friday, the last time the agency passed the 1 million mark in 2020 was Nov. 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The burgeoning influx of travelers is likely to increase as Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve draw closer.

“Over the last few days, those numbers have started to grow, much like we saw ahead of Thanksgiving,” said LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery, who noted that the airport is expecting an average of 920 flights a day through Jan. 4, up from 846 daily flights around the Thanksgiving holiday. 

The overall numbers are still down substantially from last year, however.

Some at LAX knew the risks.

“My grandma is getting old, and she has some health problems, so we wanted to see her,” said Diego Cee, a 21-year-old Pasadena resident preparing for a flight to Mexico City.

Wearing a face mask and shield, Cee said he was extremely nervous about his journey. 

He plans to quarantine for a “few days” after he arrives before visiting his grandmother, he said.

Ahmad Atif-Rea and his 12-year-old son, Iyad, said they were traveling from their home in Santa Barbara to Park City, Utah, where they were looking forward to hitting the ski slopes. The family skis every December, Atif-Rea said, and they didn’t want to miss out on the tradition this year.

“We’ll be careful, of course,” he added. “We don’t want to get sick.”

The disconnect between the warnings of health officials and the reaction of those who decide to travel and enjoy holiday gatherings sometimes seems difficult to bridge.

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