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How wildfires, gas prices and COVID-19 might change your Labor Day travel plans

Drivers on westbound Highway 52 at Mast Boulevard
San Diego drivers should expect to see a fair amount of traffic over the Labor Day weekend.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The CDC recommends people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 refrain from traveling over the Labor Day weekend.

Heading into Labor Day, gas prices are still high and federal health officials have recommended that unvaccinated Americans refrain from traveling. But still expect a decent amount of traffic on San Diego area roads and freeways over the holiday weekend.

“It’s kind of up in the air on how busy it’s going to be but it should be a fairly busy Labor Day weekend,” said Jeffrey Spring, spokesman for AAA of Southern California.

As seen so often over the course of the pandemic, a combination of factors is at play that makes it difficult for transportation experts to predict traffic volume and consumer behavior.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 refrain from traveling over the Labor Day weekend.

“Given where we are with disease transmission right now, we would say that people need to take these risks into their own consideration as they think about traveling,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing Tuesday. About 4.22 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the U.S. in August, making it the fourth-highest month for infections.

That being said, it appears many people are altering — but not canceling — their travel plans.

More than 20 percent of respondents to a national survey from Cars.com conducted two weeks ago said they canceled their flights due to worries about COVID and will drive instead.

Gasoline price in San Diego

Average for a gallon of regular
Wednesday: $4.354
A month ago: $4.341
A year ago: $3.229
All-time high: $4.725 Oct. 18, 2012

Source: AAA

An earlier survey conducted on July 30 reported 60 percent of Americans plan to travel over the Labor Day weekend. That’s 17 percent higher than one year ago, indicating that many are determined to go out.

“Paired with airline cancellations, more people are opting for their personal vehicles as the safest and most reliable mode of transportation,” said Aaron Bragman, Cars.com’s Detroit bureau chief.

In California, the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday it has closed all national forests in the state through Sept. 17, which may dissuade some motorists from hitting the road. The Forest Service made the decision in light of the dangerously dry conditions that have triggered a spate of wildfires, including the Caldor Fire that threatens Lake Tahoe.

“We do not take this decision lightly, but this is the best choice for public safety,” said Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien. “It is especially hard with the approaching Labor Day weekend, when so many people enjoy our national forests.”

Drivers have been getting socked at the pump. The average price Wednesday for a regular gallon of gasoline in San Diego was $4.35, according to AAA. That’s $1.12 higher than one year earlier when pandemic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders resulted in fewer people driving to work and school.

If it’s much consolation, the average price has remained steady in the past month.

AAA’s Spring said that’s partly due to a slight downward trend in the price of oil.

Since the beginning of August, the price of futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate, the benchmark for U.S. crude, has dropped under $70 a barrel. And the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies including Russia — called OPEC+ — earlier this summer agreed to increase production levels.

The cartel announced Wednesday it will release 400,000 barrels per day to the global market in October, after already doing so in September. The Biden administration — smarting from rising gas prices that have risen to $3.17 nationally — had urged OPEC+ to open the spigot more.

In the meantime, stockpiles of gasoline coming to the West Coast came to about 800,000 barrels last week. “That’s as high as they’ve been since April,” Spring said.

In October, California’s gas stations will transition from the more expensive summer-blended fuel to the less pricy winter blends. Roughly speaking, AAA estimates the switch can translate into a reduction of 8 to 10 cents per gallon — provided there are no refinery shutdowns or interruptions tied to oil or gasoline production.

But that’s still a few weeks away. As for this Labor Day weekend, AAA urges motorists to drive safely and never text while driving — what the auto club calls “driving while ‘intexticated.’”

“If you’re traveling on Labor Day, make sure you’re well-rested before you drive because driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk sometimes,” Spring said. “And also as dangerous is driving distracted. You take your eyes off the road, looking at your phone or the entertainment section of your vehicle and things can happen so fast on the road you can cause some real issues.”


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