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How Thanksgiving Travel Will Impact Coronavirus Numbers


Public health officials asked Americans to limit their Thanksgiving celebrations, but millions of people decided to travel anyway. Many others ignored the appeals and had large sit-down dinners indoors. How much could this further spread the virus? We're going to put that question now to NPR health reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hi, Selena.


SIMON: When will we begin to know the possible impact of the holiday on COVID numbers?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's too early now, just a few days out. Remember, it takes up to two weeks for someone to test positive after they've been exposed. Hospitalizations will rise after cases do, and then deaths will come after that. And many of these metrics aren't reliable at the moment because not every state is reporting through the holiday and the weekend. It's very likely there will be a spike connected to the holiday based on past holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day. And this current wave is already devastating without the added boost from the holiday. On average, nearly 1,500 people in the U.S. are dying of COVID-19 every day. And it's hard to fathom how it could get worse, but that's the direction things are headed.

SIMON: And, of course, there was a public backlash in many places against warnings that were made just before the holiday and backlash against additional restrictions. Tell us more about what health officials are saying.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. The messaging from officials really hammered home the dangers of small household gatherings. And we know that gathering indoors is risky. It stands to reason that if eating with friends at your house is too risky to be allowed, indoor dining at restaurants shouldn't be allowed either. But Lindsay Wiley, a health law professor at American University, says consistency has been missing in some orders being put out by officials.

LINDSAY WILEY: Rhode Island specifically says that you cannot have any gathering of any size, even outdoors, unless you have a caterer. If you hire a professional caterer, you can have up to 25 indoors or 75 outdoors.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The difference, of course, is that one is restricting businesses that are struggling in the pandemic and the other is not. But that kind of logical inconsistency can really erode public trust because then these rules seem arbitrary.

Some governors - Wiley mentioned her governor in Maryland, Larry Hogan, have been forthright that the reason for not targeting businesses is that there's no money to help them out because of the congressional stalemate over COVID relief. And that's a real problem.

SIMON: The Supreme Court - major decision this week - tossed out New York state's restrictions on religious gatherings.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. The Supreme Court waded into this issue this week in a big way. This has been a hot issue because of religious freedom protections on the one hand and evidence that religious gatherings have contributed to outbreaks. So this case had to do with attendance restrictions for religious gatherings in hot spots in New York. The Supreme Court ruled against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

And Wiley says this decision goes against lots of lower-court decisions and is going to change how state and local governments craft their restriction orders.

WILEY: Some justices of the Supreme Court explicitly have said that states cannot impose tighter restrictions on churches and synagogues than they do on grocery stores.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So Wiley predicts the public health messaging about small gatherings is going to continue after Thanksgiving because then there are going to be the same issues with Hanukkah and Christmas going forward.

SIMON: NPR health reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.