Opinion | Cancel your winter holiday travel plans now

So there’s no reason to wait to issue a warning. Before Thanksgiving, covid-19 infections were already spreading explosively. One in five hospitals reported that they were facing a critical shortage of workers. The coronavirus surged after Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, and after an estimated 50 million people traveled for the holiday, the same will certainly be true of Thanksgiving. With most of the country engulfed in coronavirus infections, chances are high that many of those who participated in indoor get-togethers will contract covid-19 and return home to seed it in their communities.

Health-care systems are stretched to their limits, with beds becoming scarce and some hospitals beginning to ration care. Deaths nationally could reach more than 4,000 a day. We have no option but to take drastic steps to “flatten the curve” once again.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention waited until one week before Thanksgiving to warn against travel. By then, however, many people had already booked flights. Now is the time for a clear directive: No one should travel for nonessential reasons. People should not gather indoors over the winter holidays. If we want to see extended family or friends, we must see them outdoors only, with households spaced at least six feet apart.

Since Christmas and Hanukkah are religious holidays, pastors and rabbis are key messengers. I spoke with two Baltimore leaders who are both holding virtual-only services this winter. “We in the faith community have to tell the story in the biblical language so that people don’t see a conflict between science and religion,” said the Rev. Al Hathaway of Union Baptist Church. He talks about how the Egyptians used physical distancing to hold off the plague as he urges his congregants not to gather with anyone outside their households.

Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am Synagogue explained to me that Hanukkah is about human ingenuity, grit and the divine-human partnership. A central practice of Hanukkah is to “publicize the miracle” by placing menorahs in windows for all to see. “This year, we can invite one another into our computer windows by posting photos of households lighting the menorah on social media,” Burg said. “We can invite families from other homes to join us each night on Zoom.”

And, of course, President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden have major roles to play. Trump can help make up for his poor messaging to date by keeping quiet and not contradicting public health experts. Biden delivered an inspiring Thanksgiving message that emphasized how Americans must unite to get through this difficult period; now, he can ask Americans to commit to the same shared sacrifice for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. He can guide families through difficult conversations by sharing the hope of vaccines and reiterating why we must hold off seeing one another for a few more months.

Many governors are already imposing restrictions on high-risk activities to avoid overwhelming hospitals. They can go further by implementing mandatory quarantines for out-of-state visitors and returning residents. In the absence of statewide mandates, local officials can issue orders of their own: Santa Clara County in Northern California is requiring quarantine for those traveling from more than 150 miles away. Officials should prohibit indoor gatherings for those in different households. Enforcement will be challenging, of course, but the presence of these restrictions alone will help convey the gravity of the crisis.

Congressional leadership matters, too. People will not heed public health guidance to stay home if their jobs are at risk. It’s long past time for Congress pass a package to assist workers and small businesses. In addition, local and state health departments urgently need funding to implement the vaccination programs that are essential to ending the pandemic. Other entities — including schools — must take aggressive action, as well, such as requiring quarantine and testing after the holidays before returning to in-person instruction.

Americans still have a small window of opportunity to avoid the total collapse of our health-care system. We need to wait just a little longer to be with our loved ones. Let’s plan for quiet celebrations in our own homes this winter. Spring is not far away.

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