Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Holiday decorations fill the otherwise empty Chattanooga Airport on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

In August, Deb Socia and her husband felt optimistic enough to buy plane tickets home to Massachusetts for the holidays, where they hoped to see their children and grandchildren this week.

Three weeks ago, they canceled those plans.

"It became obvious that there was a huge spike in cases both here and there, and we decided it wasn't worth risking our health, our children's health or our grandchildren's health," said Socia, who directs Chattanooga's Enterprise Center.

"We've got a vaccine coming, we've got some hope for the future, but we don't want to jeopardize that future," she said. "The spike after Thanksgiving scared the heck out of me, and we didn't go anywhere for Thanksgiving, either."

Last week, Tennessee ranked worst in the nation in terms of new COVID-19 cases by population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday, Tennessee's seven-day rolling average number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases per day was 8,735, according to state data. The total COVID-19 case count for Tennessee was 534,019, including 6,269 deaths and 2,888 current hospitalizations. Since Nov. 24, the number of patients in intensive care units has jumped from 549 to 745, while the number on ventilators has increased from 277 to 399.

The CDC has renewed its guidance that people should postpone travel and stay home to protect themselves and others. Terry Hart, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport's chief executive, said a similar message before Thanksgiving likely dampened the number of fliers on what is normally the airport's busiest holiday weekend.

"Bookings for Thanksgiving were strong, but the edict came out from the CDC about not traveling and a lot of customers changed plans and didn't travel by air," he said.

For the year through November, boardings are down 59.46% from the same time period in 2019, according to the airport. In October, boardings hit 22,559 passengers, which was Lovell Field's busiest month since the coronavirus pandemic landed in March. November boardings were 19,904, the airport reported.

On Sunday night, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced he would issue a new executive order restricting public indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people, though the order has multiple exceptions and he has left decisions on mask requirements to local governments.

AAA projects 34 million fewer people in the U.S. will travel over the Christmas and New Year's holidays than last year — a drop of nearly 30% — and most who decide to travel will do so by car, with road trips accounting for 96% of holiday travel. Up to 81 million Americans will travel by car, a decline of at least 25% compared to last year, AAA projects.

Nearly 60% of people in a recent GasBuddy survey said COVID-19 has impacted their holiday travel plans. While a majority intends to stay put, 10% said they changed their plans to go by car instead of by plane or train.

On Christmas Day, her Highland Park neighbors will stay close to home and do some outdoor, socially distant visiting to keep each other's spirits up during this strangely isolated holiday season, Socia said.

"We've been doing things in our neighborhood to help each other out — making cookies, leaving a meal, talking over the fence," she said.

For Whitney Witt, whose extended family normally gathers at her Chattanooga home for Christmas every year, this will be a Zoom and FaceTime holiday, she said.

"This year we made the decision it's just not worth the risk," Witt said. "Both my husband's parents and my parents are in high-risk categories."

Instead, Witt and her husband and their two sons will connect online with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, she said.

"We're going to Zoom and FaceTime when we open presents," she said. "It's one day out of 365 and it's important, but you just find new ways to connect and worship and be together and look forward to getting through it."

Christal Brown would normally travel to North Carolina from Chattanooga for her family's traditional, multi-generational gathering at the home of her 85-year-old father. This year, though, she and her husband and their three college-age children will watch movies and lay low.

"We convinced my dad it would be fun to have a late Christmas in the spring outside," said Brown, who battled COVID-19 in September and isn't certain how long she might remain immune.

"I would never want to risk my dad's health and his wife's health and, honestly, I really don't want to get this again," Brown said. "It's scary — it's not like anything I've ever felt before."

Staff writer Mike Pare contributed to this story.

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