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Like the rest of the world, the United States is six months into the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is where many of the similarities end. While much of Europe and Asia is in a better — if by no means risk-free — position than they were two, three, or four months ago, the pandemic in the U.S. is soaring.
There were 400,000 new cases for the week ending July 12, a 21 percent week-on-week increase. Deaths linked to the virus also rose nationally last week for the first time since April, Reuters reported. Average weekly deaths linked to the virus are lower than their peak earlier in the pandemic, but are rising steadily each passing week.
And yet, despite no signs of things getting better — and many Americans openly defying public health guidance with “Covid parties” and a defiant refusal to wear masks — travel is still reopening. In just one example, Florida broke New York’s prior record on Sunday for the largest single day rise in cases to date (15,300) just as Walt Disney World reopened for business the day before.
This grim state of affairs begs the question: “Isn’t it irresponsible to try to advocate any kind of travel at this point?”
That was precisely the question posed by an National Public Radio reporter during a Tuesday call with U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy Tori Barnes and Trish Perl, a doctor and fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America as well as the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
The answer provided on the call, at which Skift reporters were present, isn’t straightforward, but gives some insight into how the industry’s leading trade group in the U.S. is thinking about this conundrum.
“We think that you can reopen the economy and have health and safety be first and foremost, if folks take the health and safety measures [very seriously],” Barnes said. However, she went on to note her belief that a reinstatement of more severe measures we saw earlier in the year “would actually put the country in a dangerous national security position if we have a total shutdown of the U.S. economy. We’ve already lost eight million jobs within the travel industry this year, and we’re expecting, without additional help from the government, a recovery not until 2024.”
Perl noted that even though cases are higher, there is some difference between traveling now and a few months ago, when the pandemic first took off in the U.S. “I actually feel much more comfortable with some travel moving forward at this point than I did say two or three months ago just because I think we’ve got a lot more information about how effective mask wearing is and some of these other behaviors,” she said. “So I am confident that we can do some of this if we’re smart and if we can get people to comply.”
But she acknowledged that compliance isn’t so simple. “To me the biggest challenge really is to get a very independent country with very independent practices to try and say: Look this is not negotiable. If we want to move forward and open up these different industries, it’s not negotiable whether or not you wear a mask.”
— U.S. Travel (@USTravel) July 8, 2020
The U.S. Travel Association began emphasizing the use of masks as a safe way to reopen the travel industry several weeks ago. Barnes said the group is encouraging its members in the travel industry to continue with this effort, despite the ongoing politicization of masks.
“From an economic recovery standpoint we need to get people moving gain, and the best placed way to do that in a healthy and safe way is for folks to wear mask,” Barnes said. “We think travel businesses should encourage the wearing of masks. Many are and we’ve been very clear that we should follow cdc guidance with regards to wearing masks. All we can do is continue to throughout our industry, focus on the best way to bring jobs back, and the best way to get people moving again.”