Viral Video Shows Packed Phoenix Airport as CDC Begs People to Stay Home

Two passengers wearing face coverings wait for a flight at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Phoenix. The coronavirus outbreak has caused a significant decrease in air travel. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By Bree Burkitt

November 23, 2020

Sunday was the single-busiest day for airports in the country since the pandemic took hold in the United States in March. 

State officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are pleading for people to stay home as the number of new COVID-19 cases surge across Arizona and the country.

But video taken at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the Friday before Thanksgiving showed hundreds of people packed inside a busy terminal as they waited for their flights. 

The video, which was taken by a traveler and shared with a local news station, showed many standing close together in groups—ignoring CDC guidelines of standing at least six feet apart to avoid spreading COVID-19. Others can be seen wearing masks incorrectly with the covering exposing their noses. 

Images and video of the packed airport circulated social media just days after state officials urged Arizonans to wear masks, practice social distancing, and follow other precautions in an attempt to combat a spike in case numbers on par with some of the highest numbers reported in the summer. 

State officials—primarily Democrats—have called on Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to enact a statewide mask mandate. However, the airport is located in the City of Phoenix, which requires people to wear masks in public. 

Sky Harbor wasn’t the only airport that saw an uptick in travelers ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than a million people nationwide moved through TSA checkpoints on Friday and an additional million Sunday. 

Sunday was the single-busiest day for airports in the country since the pandemic took hold in the United States in March. 

The surge in weekend travelers came shortly after the CDC warned against traveling for the upcoming holidays. Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 response incident manager, had recommended against any travel during the Thanksgiving period. 

“The tragedy that could happen is that one of your family members is coming to this family gathering and they could end up severely ill, hospitalized or dying,” he said. “And we don’t want that to happen.”

Fewer Americans were expected to travel for the holiday this year compared to previous years. AAA estimated 50 million people would travel, which is down about 10% from the 55 million who traveled before the COVID pandemic in 2019. 

Case Numbers Continue to Grow

The record number of travelers recorded by the TSA comes as more than 3 million COVID-19 cases were reported between November 1 and 22—about a quarter of all US cases reported since the start of the pandemic, according to data from John Hopkins University. More than 12.3 million cases have been reported as of Monday and 250,000 deaths. 

In Arizona, the number of new COVID cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 2,659 new cases Monday as the overall death toll rose to 6,464. The state’s case total increased to 302,324.

Last Thursday, Arizona topped more than 4,000 cases in a single day for the first time since July, which was during a summer surge that made the state a national hot spot after Gov. Doug Ducey relaxed business closings and stay-home restrictions.

CDC Encourages Travelers to Stay Home

Arizona does not currently have any statewide travel restrictions. Other states, including California and New Mexico, require visitors to quarantine for two weeks after arriving. New York and Rhode Island allow visitors to avoid or end quarantine early if they can provide a negative COVID test.

The safest option is to avoid traveling altogether and celebrating only with those in your immediate household, according to the CDC. The concern is not only with traveling but also with any subsequent large family gatherings, as there’s a risk of contracting the disease and then spreading it to others. 

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer of Banner Health, offered similar advice. 

“Congregating in large groups and close contact with others outside of your immediate household put you and those around you at risk,” Bessel said. “I know we are asking a lot of you.”

To gather safely this Thanksgiving, the CDC recommends:

  • Celebrating only with those in your immediate household, if possible;
  • Wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing guidelines of six feet;
  • Using disposable items like food containers, utensils, and plates;
  • Keeping gatherings outdoors;
  • Limiting the number of people as much as possible.


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