Cars and trucks travel on the Maine Turnpike near exit 48 in Portland in this January 2020 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Travel on the Maine Turnpike is expected to be down by about a quarter over Christmas compared to a typical year, as state officials have urged Mainers to avoid large gatherings after the state and nation saw a surge in coronavirus cases following Thanksgiving.

Case levels in Maine remain higher than ever heading into Christmas. A record 753 cases of the virus were recorded Wednesday, though the state’s top health official attributed the spike in part to improved testing procedures. December is still on track to be the deadliest month of the pandemic, with 82 deaths so far.

Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday encouraged Mainers to be cautious over the holiday, saying people should find “new and creative ways” to connect with family members and continue with mask-wearing and public health precautions.

“We avoid giving in to the inclination to ignore what is dangerously obvious: The pandemic is still raging, making people sick,” she said. “It’s stealing the lives of people across our state and our nation.”

The Maine Turnpike Authority is projecting a 24 percent drop in toll transactions along the turnpike compared to last year, with 592,000 transactions expected between Thursday and Sunday, down from 780,000 last year. Decreased travel due to the virus is a major factor, while the agency is also eyeing a predicted Christmas Day storm that could bring heavy rain and 60 mph winds to parts of the state.

Across New England, AAA has projected an overall decline in travel of 35 percent through the end of the year compared to the same period in 2019, including a 31 percent drop in road travel and a 58 percent drop in air travel.

Mainers stayed home more this fall as virus cases have worsened, though not as much as at the beginning of the pandemic. Travel on the Maine Turnpike was down by about a third over Thanksgiving weekend compared to 2019, a greater drop than officials had expected amid bad weather. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged Americans to cancel travel plans shortly before the holiday.

Maine also tightened travel restrictions amid the rise in cases in early November, requiring once again that visitors from all states other than Vermont and New Hampshire test negative for the virus prior to coming or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

But coronavirus cases continued to rise, and state health officials have pointed to Thanksgiving gatherings as a major factor contributing to that. A White House task force recommended for the first time in early December that Maine take additional measures to curb the spread of the virus. Mills tightened the state’s mask mandate on Dec. 11, but said Wednesday that she was not planning to reinstate more economic restrictions in the coming days.