Virus jams up Memorial Day traffic predictions

Road construction in the median on Del. 1 near Smyrna last week. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Legendary poet Robert Frost could probably relate to these coronavirus-inspired days of staying at home, considering one of his well-known works is a poem written in 1915 titled, “The Road Not Taken.”

The roads in Delaware certainly could be not taken this upcoming Memorial Day weekend, but the Delaware Department of Transportation, as well as AAA Travel, are not making any forecasts.

In the middle of stay-at-home orders under Gov. John Carney’s extended state of emergency order, and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that Americans stay home and avoid nonessential travel, it’s possible this Memorial Day weekend will see a record-low number of travelers.

However, many questions remain.

DelDOT is uncertain what Memorial Day will hold this year, with Rehoboth Beach reopening its beach and boardwalk on Friday in the footsteps of other coastal resort towns, such as neighboring Dewey Beach and Ocean City, Maryland.

“We are not able to make a forecast for what travel may look like for Memorial Day with so many unknowns,” said Charles “C.R.” McLeod, director of community relations for DelDOT. “Traffic continues to creep slowly back up. Generally, we are still seeing a 30-50 percent reduction statewide compared to the same time last year for weekdays; 20-50 percent for weekends.

“(We’re) not seeing any of the 60-70 percent reductions like we were seeing in mid-April. I would expect we will continue to see traffic volumes rise as more businesses reopen, but it’s difficult to predict what that will look like at this time. With a nice weekend (this week), we should have a better sense next week what volumes are looking like.”

This year also marks the first time in 20 years that AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as officials said the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. The annual forecast — which estimates the number of people traveling over the holiday weekend — will return next year.

Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season.

“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day weekend — the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a statement. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”

Memorial Day 2009 currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers, according to AAA. On that holiday weekend, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other forms of transportation (train, cruise, etc.).

Delaware’s beach towns and traffic will surely be impacted Memorial Day weekend because short-term rentals in the state, including vacation home rentals, hotels, motels and condo rentals, are still banned under the governor’s order.

Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns said last Tuesday that Gov. Carney is likely hearing from business owners eager to resume operations in time to take advantage of the summer tourism season.

“I’m sure the real estate lobby, just like the restaurant lobby, is in the ear of the governor. … I’m sure the hotel lobby is doing the same thing,” he said. “Over the next week and a half or so, the governor’s going to have to make a lot of those decisions.”

On Thursday, Gov. Carney announced plans to ease restrictions on Delaware beaches and community pools starting next Friday.

“Summer at the beach and the pool is a huge part of life for so many Delawareans. As we ease our way into a new normal, we’re trying to find ways for Delawareans to enjoy the outdoors and the company of their families,” said Gov. Carney. “I want to be very clear to our friends who want to travel here from outside the state. While we hope one day soon to be able to welcome you to our beaches, that time has not yet come. We need to reopen Delaware in a controlled way that doesn’t put anyone at risk.”

GasBuddy, a travel and navigation app, conducted a survey that estimated that 31 percent of Americans plan to hit the road this summer, down 44 percent from last year, according to GasBuddy’s 2020 Summer Travel Study.

However, consumers have not completely ruled out fitting in a road trip this summer just yet. While 18 percent definitively said there will be no road trips, 51 percent still have not decided during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are starting to see a rebound in fuel demand from our Pay with GasBuddy program since mid-April,” said Sarah McCrary, CEO of GasBuddy, in a statement. “There could be a surge in last-minute, shorter road trips in the second half of summer as people continue to access the situation.”

The GasBuddy survey revealed that 72 percent said that COVID-19 has directly impacted their summer travel plans: taking fewer road trips than previously planned (48 percent), canceling trips that require flying (36 percent) and making shorter trips (24 percent).

AAA expects to make travel projections for the late summer and fall, assuming states ease travel restrictions and businesses reopen. Already, there are indications that Americans’ wanderlust is inspiring them to plan future vacations. online bookings have been rising, though modestly, since mid-April, suggesting travelers’ confidence is slowly improving. When it is safe to travel, AAA predicts vacationers will have a preference for U.S. destinations, mostly local and regional locations, and the great American road trip.

“The saying goes that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Ms. Twidale said. “Americans are taking that first step toward their next journey from the comfort of their home by researching vacation opportunities and talking with travel agents.
“We are seeing that Americans are showing a preference and inspiration to explore all that our country has to offer as soon as it is safe to travel.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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