Strange holiday weekend has weak travel and tropical weather forecasts

By David Patch / The Blade
Fri, 22 May 2020 12:00:00 GMT

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The first long holiday weekend of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be a staycation for many.

Gasoline prices, while considerably higher than they were in late April, remain the lowest they’ve been for Memorial Day since 2003, according to and the American Automobile Association. But with many states restricting cross-border travel, many tourism-related businesses closed, and many millions of Americans newly unemployed, experts expect travel to be at a minimum for the unofficial kickoff to summer.

The weather, however, is expected to become increasingly summerlike during the course of the weekend, with heat and high humidity arriving by Sunday.

Last year 43 million Americans traveled more than 50 miles from home during Memorial Day weekend, AAA said. But other than predicting “record low” holiday travel this year, the auto club has no forecast: after 20 years of conducting travel-plans surveys, it canceled the one for this holiday because “the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.”

Instead, AAA offered, “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.”

To set a record low for the auto club’s purposes, fewer people would have to travel during the holiday weekend than the 31 million who did so for Memorial Day 2009, during the later days of the Great Recession of 2008.

The travel survey costs money to conduct, “and I don’t think we need to do a survey to understand the consequences” that the pandemic has had for travel and travel-related businesses, Cindy Antrican, a regional spokesman for the auto club, said Thursday. “Three months ago, if I had told you what was going to be happening now, you probably wouldn’t have believed me.”

A poll question on Gasbuddy’s website asking participants what holiday-related driving plans they have, meanwhile, got an 84 percent response for “no holiday-specific driving.” While the Gasbuddy poll in no way has a random or representative sample, that was up from 76 percent saying “no holiday-specific driving” a year ago, 73 percent in 2018, and 71 percent in 2017.

“What are you going to do when you get there?” would be the main conundrum facing most people who might otherwise hit the highways this weekend, said Patrick De Haan, Gasbuddy’s chief petroleum analyst.

But shorter-distance travel is starting to recover, Mr. De Haan said, and both he and Ms. Antrican said that as summer progresses, a travel rebound is likely as long as a coronavirus resurgence doesn’t start shutting things down again.

Forty million fresh unemployment claims mean a lot of Americans don’t have disposable income right now, Mr. De Haan said, but as unemployment benefits and stimulus checks come in and at least some parts of the economy get back to work, “that could boost demand at the end of the season.”

“I think there’s pent-up demand,” Ms. Antrican agreed. “Road trips are going to start small: in-state, or to neighboring states. But the Great American Road Trip is going to come roaring back.”

Local gasoline prices have rebounded from their late-April low — an average of $1.29 per gallon for regular, with a handful of stations briefly below $1 — to just over $1.90 per gallon on average Thursday because demand has started to pick back up while refiners sharply curtailed gasoline production starting in early April, Mr. De Haan said.

“Gasoline prices have rebounded to the same degree that demand has rebounded,” he said while noting that refiners are only “cautiously increasing output” that they switched over to making diesel fuel in April.

Ms. Antrican noted as well that waivers of federal pollution-control rules that usually require “summer blends” of gasoline to be sold starting in early spring have been waived, but that waiver is on the verge of expiring, and warm-weather gasoline costs more to produce.

A local retail price increase that started at Kroger stations early Thursday and was quickly matched by competitors had more to do with rising wholesale prices than with the upcoming holiday, Mr. De Haan said, although retailers also are more averse to selling gas at below-wholesale prices “for a big weekend” than they are when they’re chasing customers.

Relatively light traffic volumes should minimize the impact of road construction for those who do take to local highways this weekend. I-75, I-475, and I-280 all have major long-term work zones in or near Toledo, although in all three cases two lanes of traffic are planned to be open in each direction, so the biggest hassles involve ramp closings in both Toledo and Monroe County on I-75.

Weather during the holiday weekend, meanwhile, will feel very much like summer after a fairly cool first three weeks of May. After a damp, mild day Friday, temperatures are likely to warm up into the upper 70s on Saturday and into the mid-80s Sunday and Monday, with sultry nighttime lows in the upper 60s and a continuing possibility of showers and thunderstorms starting Saturday night.

“The driest day of the holiday weekend will be Saturday, and that’s directly related to the lower levels of humidity,” said Jay Berschback, chief meteorologist at WTVG-TV Channel 13.

The chance for rain Saturday night will be fairly low, Mr. Berschback said, but on Sunday and Monday it’ll be about 40 percent, “with a little bit heavier rain on Monday if it does happen.” And by then the air mass will be very tropical, and probably feel even more so because it has been so cool of late.