Large crowds and lines again formed at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday as travelers prepared to depart Chicago ahead of Thanksgiving despite warnings from state, local and federal health officials against gathering for the holiday.
Photos showed people lined up in terminals and checking in for flights on Tuesday morning, one day after the Transportation Security Administration reported the highest number of passengers boarding flights nationwide over the weekend since March.
On Sunday, 1,047,934 people were screened at U.S. airports, the highest number of passengers boarding flights in a single day since March 16, according to the TSA. In all, over three million people were screened over the weekend. While that's far lower than during the same time last year, Friday also marked only the second time since mid-March that daily airport screenings topped 1 million.
According to O'Hare's website, face coverings are required inside the airport and, "when possible, travelers should maintain 6 feet or 2 meters distance between individuals."
Large crowds and long lines could be seen at O'Hare beginning on Friday. The Chicago Department of Aviation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how many travelers passed through the city's two airports over the weekend.
"The safety, security, and well-being of the traveling public is our highest priority, and CDA works closely with our airport and public health partners to ensure the safest possible environment," the Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement Friday. "This means, among other things, masks are required to be worn at the airport, social distancing is encouraged via floor decals and other signage, and the most up-to-date public health guidance is communicated regularly through a variety of channels."
In addition, the department said it worked with TSA and airlines operating out of the airport to "ensure consistency throughout the terminals." There are also volunteer "ambassadors" moving through terminals, distributing masks and encouraging social distancing, officials said.
"We will continue these efforts, but we would also like to remind travelers of their responsibility to follow public health guidance, including wearing a mask and maintaining appropriate social distance," CDA's statement read. "We all have a role to play."
The lines and crowds come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on Thursday urging Americans not to travel for the holiday.
Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, said he is concerned "about the transportation hubs." He said he's worried people won't be able to maintain social distancing while waiting in line, for example, to board buses and planes.
"We're alarmed," Walke said, adding that the country has seen an "exponential increase" in cases, hospitalizations and deaths recently. "One of our concerns is that as people over the holiday season get together, they may actually be bringing infections with them to that small gathering and not even know it."
The Illinois Department of Public Health expressed similar concerns, urging families to instead celebrate the holiday virtually.
"Just remember a negative test does not get you a free pass to celebrate Thanksgiving in person," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Thursday. "The safest way to celebrate with your loved ones and your cherished elderly relatives is to do it virtually."
Ezike noted that exposure could lead to a positive test any time within 14 days of that exposure.
"That only works if you haven't exposed yourself to anyone in the 14 days from when you got tested to when you meet up with your friends and family," she said. "When you are around other people you could be exposed to the virus at any time."
On Monday, Ezike again urged residents not to travel or gather in person, saying it's "not too late" to change plans.
"We don’t have to have 'super spreader' events at homes throughout our state and throughout the country and bring it back," Ezike said. "Please reconsider your plans and be part of the solution to decrease infections, instead of part of the plan to increase them."
“Let's lessen the burden on all of our hospital teams, and we can do this by not spreading infection over this Thanksgiving holiday by wearing our mask, by watching our distance, by washing our hands and by getting our flu shots,” she added.
Hospitals in the state are preparing for the potential that Thanksgiving and Christmas could lead to increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Several Illinois hospitals are now reporting more coronavirus patients than during the spring peak as medical professionals warn of trying months ahead, information provided by multiple hospitals reveals.
"Thanksgiving dinners have the potential to be super spreader events," Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for the Advocate Aurora Health hospital system, said Monday. "It's so critically important that we do not do that. The numbers are devastating right now. Our health care system cannot absorb doubling or tripling of those numbers. It might happen if we have many super spreader events arising out of Thanksgiving."
Chicago and suburban Cook County are under stay-at-home advisories, effective Monday and continuing for 30 days, urging residents to avoid gatherings with people who don't live in their home. IDPH issued similar stay-at-home recommendations statewide as the entire state braces for heightened Tier 3 mitigations starting Friday, closing several businesses and imposing new limitations on others.
Chicago has also issued a travel order for nearly all of the United States, requiring anyone who comes to the city after being in certain states to quarantine for two weeks or, in some cases, receive a pre-arrival negative test.
Some travelers said last week that they were surprised at the amount of people at the airport.
“No one is 6 feet apart. Everyone is kind of 3 feet apart or 2 feet apart. It’s horrible,” said O’Hare passenger Sidney Morgan.
Even though AAA says nearly 15% fewer Illinoisans are traveling this year compared to last, 2.4 million are still expected to make the holiday trip.
Most Americans are expected to travel by automobile, followed by plane, according to the group. Despite the CDC's warning, some travelers said they weren't concerned.
“I feel safe to fly,” said O’Hare passenger Ariel Brummel.
“Nearly a billion people have traveled by air and only 44 cases of COVID have been linked to direct transmission on a plane,” said “The Points Guy” Brian Kelly.
If you do travel, the CDC reminds travelers of safety precautions.
Walke said there is "no more important time than now for each and every American to redouble our efforts to watch our distance, wash our hands and, most importantly, wear a mask."