The number of Mainers traveling for Thanksgiving is expected to be down sharply this year, as many avoid gathering with friends and family amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

About 2.2 million people in New England are expected to travel for the holiday this year, a decrease of 9 percent from 2019, according to AAA Northern New England. It would be the sharpest year-over-year decline since the 2008 recession, the travel and insurance company said.

AAA’s forecast was made before the recent surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, said Pat Moody, director of public affairs and government relations for AAA Northern New England. Any additional restrictions imposed as a result of the worsening numbers could curtail travel plans further.

“States are currently evaluating and updating travel protocol, which will likely play a significant factor for those planning a holiday trip to another state,” Moody said. “This Thanksgiving will be different than in past years. The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving this year because of the severity of the pandemic. Public health officials are worried large holiday gatherings may cause a spike in coronavirus infections and have said the safest thing people can do is stay home and celebrate only with members of their household.

More travelers than last year will choose to travel by car for the safety of staying with close household members and to avoid public spaces in airports and bus and train stations. AAA expects roughly 155,000 New England travelers to fly for the holiday, a 47 percent decrease from last year, while it expects train and bus passengers to total just 10,000, a decline of 77 percent.

The Maine Turnpike Authority expects about 912,500 vehicles on the highway between Wednesday and Sunday, a nearly 15 percent decline from the same period last year. Thanksgiving is typically one of the busier times of year on the turnpike, but it produces less traffic than weekends in August, at the height of summer tourism.

“The decision to travel is a personal one,” Moody said. “For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure.”

Vehicle movement in Maine appears to be dropping as infections surge and public health officials repeatedly warn residents to avoid unnecessary trips.

Traffic volume in Maine has been falling for the past two months, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

Since a peak in late August, vehicle miles traveled on state roads were down 5 percent to 10 percent each week compared with the same period last year, the department reported. Although traffic slows following the summer tourism rush, vehicle miles traveled last week were the lowest since early June.

Public health officials have warned for weeks that people should avoid gathering, even in small groups and especially indoors, to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 transmission. The reality that the virus is spreading unchecked across Maine and nearly everywhere else in New England may give residents pause before attending parties with family and friends.

“We’ve thought about the concerns and risks about Thanksgiving for some time,” said Dr. Nirav Shaw, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in a news conference Wednesday.

In Canada, Thanksgiving celebrations in mid-October appear to have sparked an increase in the virus, Shaw said.

“We now have a little bit of data from our colleagues to the north who celebrated their Thanksgiving on Oct. 12, and sadly, about two weeks after that, they started experiencing a significant increase in cases across Canada related to Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations,” Shaw said.

New travel restrictions imposed since the beginning of November may also make holiday visits across state lines more difficult. Maine removed Connecticut, New York and New Jersey from a list of states exempt from travel restrictions early this month. Massachusetts was removed from the exempt list last week.

Under state rules, travelers from those states are required to self-quarantine in Maine for 14 days after arriving or be able to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to arriving in the state. The same protocol applies to Mainers traveling home from any nonexempt state.

On Saturday, Massachusetts added New Hampshire and Maine to its list of states where travelers must quarantine or provide a negative coronavirus test if entering or returning to the Bay State.

A recent negative test is not a shield against infection, said Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew during the news conference Wednesday.

“A negative test is a snapshot – it is not a free pass to enjoy Thanksgiving without physical distancing, without face masking,” Lambrew said. “We do ask people to remember that it is just a snapshot – you can be exposed or develop the disease later.”

Only New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt from the self-quarantine and testing requirements, but Maine has advised all travelers to obtain a COVID-19 test and “know before you go.”

Even with preventative measures in place, Gov. Janet Mills urged people to rethink nonessential travel, even though many are desperate to visit family and friends they have not seen for months.

“If you don’t absolutely have to go, don’t go. The less travel, the less exposure to people,” Mills said. “The virus doesn’t care if it is your loved ones, your long lost aunt or uncle – the virus doesn’t care. You don’t want to be the one that exposed them. You don’t want to be exposed by them to this deadly virus.”

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