The idea of home took over our lives in 2020. It became not just a starting point but an entire universe—sometimes a prison or a refuge, but always the default. As Memorial Day weekend 2021 kicks off, the idea of leaving home for fun has become mainstream; it helps that the state department of health now explicitly allows travel for vaccinated persons. Leisure travel, it appears, is back, though we should all be prepared for a little re-entry shock.
For one, travelers should expect lines at Sea-Tac Airport. In April, the airport posted its largest number of people passing through since the beginning of the pandemic, almost 90,000 coming or going. This weekend is projected to hit six digits, though the crowds will likely still be 40 percent smaller than the last "regular" Memorial Day, in 2019.
Even with everyone masked—still a requirement at Sea-Tac—and presumably a majority of people vaccinated, it's still unnerving (and annoying) to wait for TSA. The new SEA Spot Saver program allows travelers to reserve a TSA screening time, letting them wander or make ill-advised snack purchases instead of standing in a winding queue. After security, Sea-Tac boasts updates undergone during the pandemic, particularly in the newly modernized North Satellite. The $710 million project includes green rainwater collection, new parent services like a nursing room, and charging stations.
But the airport probably won't compare to the predicted roadageddon on local freeways. Washington State Department of Transportation is so sure of coming backups that one of its twitter feeds was already using a Saturday Night Live Church Lady gif as a pre-emptive gridlock "told you so":
Hey! It's Wednesday. Do you have a good plan if you need to travel over the holiday weekend? You may experience HOURS of delays on our highways. Monday on westbound I-90 will be the worst.— Snoqualmie Pass (@SnoqualmiePass) May 26, 2021
Advanced Notice: I told you so. pic.twitter.com/Tat2q6i3hw
With sunny forecasts across the state, WSDOT especially highlights I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, Highway 2 across Stevens Pass, and I-5 between Olympia and Tacoma as likely choke points for traffic. Train travel, too, makes a return, as Amtrak restored full service on Northwest routes (excluding the ones to Canada, of course) on May 24.
And, of course, there's the ferries. When a fire put the vessel Wenatchee out of service in April, boat availability became even more constricted across the state. "This is as dire as I've seen it," says WSDOT's communications staffer Ian Sterling, pointing out that not long ago there were 24 ferries in rotation, but repairs and certifications could leave the system with as few as 18 at one time, even as passenger levels surge. "We're seeing near pre-pandemic levels already, especially on popular tourist routes, on Friday or Sundays," he says. While commuter counts may still be down, the days of multi-hour waits at, say, the Kingston-Edmonds terminals are again a reality.
Traffic? Long lines? Other people? The basic concepts of Seattle-area travel may have felt fuzzy and distant for a while, but they are assuredly back—but so are new sights, new experiences, and a chance to see something besides our own Zoom backgrounds. Welcome back, real life.