Traffic at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was occasionally brisk Wednesday as travelers hurried to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family — despite warnings from health officials to stay home as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.

"I did go through a period where I wondered if I should travel or not, and I just came to peace with it," said April Fenn of Victoria, who was headed to Cleveland to visit family.

More than 50 million travelers were expected to take to the air, road and rails this Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA.

This weekend, footage of packed airport terminals across the country — widely shared on social media — shocked some but caused others to shrug. MSP has initiated several safety measures, including a requirement that passengers wear masks.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) nationally screened nearly 4 million passengers between Saturday and Tuesday, the highest level since last spring but far less than last year. The federal agency doesn't release local data.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised those traveling for Thanksgiving to stay home instead as a way of mitigating the disease's spread.

"Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19," the CDC said in an updated advisory this week. "Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year."

Gov. Tim Walz last week ordered a four-week shutdown of bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness clubs in Minnesota to slow the spread of the virus, which has caused nearly 3,400 deaths across the state and sickened some 289,000 others. Walz and health officials urged Minnesotans to dial back this year's Thanksgiving festivities.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the following Sunday, typically are the busiest travel days of the year at MSP.

But in the past week there's been some softening in passenger demand at the airport, according to Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns and operates MSP. That's likely due to state and federal health officials urging people to stay home, he said.

On Wednesday, MAC officials estimated that 14,660 travelers would be screened at both terminals, about a 60% drop from last year's total of 36,353.

To fly or not to fly

Cheryl Smith, of Robbinsdale, was at MSP bright and early Wednesday for a flight to Fort Lauderdale to visit her brother for the holiday. She wasn't worried about flying but felt a little guilty with the CDC advising people not to go.

"I had COVID in the summertime," Smith said. "But every time I turn the news on they're saying, don't fly. So I am feeling guilty, but I'm feeling a bit safer because I've already had it."

Major airlines have gone to "extraordinary lengths" to give passengers some wiggle room with their bookings should they change their minds, said Kyle Potter, editor of the Thrifty Traveler website. Major carriers — including Delta, the dominant airline at MSP — are either allowing a one-time change without the usual fees or offering vouchers that last for up to two years, depending on the booking date, he said.

Still, Potter said, "Some people who want or need to travel are going to go regardless of what the CDC says about travel."

St. Olaf College sophomore Abdou Ghanim, who was heading home Wednesday to Egypt for winter break, said flying wasn't any more worrisome than being at school.

"Back on campus everybody's living together so I would have been worried about that, being in close encounters with everyone, and there is a much higher risk there, I think, contracting COVID than traveling," Ghanim said.

The fact that Tim and September Kruse of Lakeville had COVID-19 over the summer appeased some of their travel worries. The couple was traveling Wednesday to Washington, D.C., to visit family.

"We tested positive three months ago and survived so that helps too, makes you feel a little safer traveling, that you know you can't get it again," September Kruse said.

Health experts say it's still too early to know whether people who have already had the coronavirus are immune after recovering from it.

Unlike many Wednesday at the airport, Joon Bay was traveling for business.

Bay, who has flown multiple times for work since the start of the pandemic, said his worries shift depending on his destination.

Bay said he feels more comfortable traveling because he participated in the Pfizer vaccine clinical trial, though he's not sure whether he received the vaccine or a placebo.

After participating in the test, he said he briefly experienced chest tightness and shortness of breath.

"I feel a little bit better. It's not 100 percent guaranteed, but it's better than nothing," Bay said.

But others expressed dismay about holiday travel. Dr. Sakina Naqvi, a University of Minnesota pulmonologist and critical care physician, said she was frustrated by a TV report of rising airport activity while the intensive care unit at the U Medical Center is full of severely ill COVID-19 patients.

"People are just getting demoralized in the health care system," she said.

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this story.

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