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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The entry gate is ready for passengers at a mostly deserted Chattanooga Airport on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. The Thanksgiving weekend is typically the busiest holiday travel weekend of the year, but air travel is expected to be down by about 45%, and airlines have cut trips and capacity as the pandemic has persisted.

The four-day Thanksgiving weekend is typically the busiest holiday of the year at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, with a jam-packed Wednesday as people fly out and a "gangbuster" Sunday as they return, airport CEO Terry Hart said.

But there's nothing typical about 2020.

"My gut feeling is we'll see half as many people as we did the last two years," Hart said on Thursday, the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued grim guidance discouraging travel in the face of a worsening pandemic. "Everything seems to be down, and I'm just not sure if some people are going to cancel and not go."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga tourism officials say they're ready for holiday season)

Hiren Desai, CEO of 3H Group Hotels, said his properties in large markets are not expecting much business over the long holiday weekend, but his hotels in drive-in markets such as Chattanooga and Knoxville are running full.

"We're full, though at a lower rate," said Desai, whose portfolio includes 19 hotels, with five in the Chattanooga market. "The weekends are kind of keeping us going, like a lot of hotels across the country."

(READ MORE: 'COVID fatigue,' looming flu season pose challenges as coronavirus pandemic continues in Chattanooga region)

Airlines have also cut rates, as well as capacity, as they've reduced the number of flights they're running, Hart said.

For road-trippers, gas is cheaper than it has been since 2016, but the number of travelers will still be down dramatically, predicted GasBuddy, a travel and navigation app. In a release about its 2020 Annual Thanksgiving Travel Survey, GasBuddy reported that 35% of Americans will be taking to the roads this year, a decrease from 65% last year.

AAA predicts 50 million people will take a road trip over the Thanksgiving weekend — about 4% fewer than last year — while it predicts air travel will be cut by nearly half, to about 2.4 million.

In Tennessee, the expectation is 1.2 million travelers will hit the state's roads, said Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Jennifer Flynn.

2020 Thanksgiving Holiday Travelers

Automobile
2020: 47.8M
2019: 49.9M
Change: -4.3%

Air
2020: 2.4M
2019: 4.58M
Change: -47.5%

Other (Bus, Train, Cruise)
2020: 353,000
2019: 1.5M
Change: -76.2%

Source: AAA

(READ MORE: Labor Day weekend travel driven by road trips as people stay closer to home while COVID-19 pandemic persists)

"However, these figures could be even lower as Americans monitor the public health landscape, including rising COVID-19 positive case numbers, renewed quarantine restrictions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's travel health notices," she said.

The U.S. Travel Association hosted a virtual news conference Thursday at which Dr. Michael Parkinson described the COVID-19 pandemic as "unprecedented, uncontrolled and dangerous."

"If you do travel, you should know something about your destination," Parkinson said, citing disease prevalence in the community, local mask requirements and social distancing guidelines among important factors to be aware of.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger extended a countywide mask mandate into January on Thursday, citing the need for continued vigilance as the coronavirus spreads.

Photo Gallery

Thanksgiving travel outlook

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor extends mask mandate again amid COVID-19)

Local attractions have taken precautions including limiting capacity, selling timed tickets in advance, enhanced cleaning and requiring masks, said Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co.

"They've done a tremendous job with precautions and safety measures," he said, adding that some attractions have already sold out some time slots over the long holiday weekend. "We're continuing to communicate to encourage safety, encourage physical distancing, wear a mask, especially with the recent surge, not just in Tennessee but around the country."

The long weekend also offers a good opportunity to go outside, one of the safer activities available during the pandemic, White said.

"Even if it's just getting out and hiking, walking, we have a beautiful city, beautiful parks, and it's a great time to be outside and enjoy your city," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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