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Omicron triggers lockdown by default across US as businesses shutter due to outbreaks

The Omicron variant is triggering a de facto lockdown in parts of the country as scores of businesses shutter on their own due to staff outbreaks, raising concerns about the impact on small businesses after nearly two years of disruptions.

Perhaps aware that the US public has little appetite for further government restrictions, elected leaders are avoiding mandatory shutdowns in the Omicron wave.

Nevertheless in New York City, where Omicron hit early and hard, many restaurants and bars have shuttered after staff outbreaks or exposure, and as customers cancel bookings for fear of the virus.

Multiple Broadway shows have closed their doors, and Mayor-elect Eric Adams cancelled his inauguration gala scheduled for New Year’s Day.

‘All of the decision making is put on the small-business owners,’ Brooklyn butcher shop owner Brent Young told the Atlantic, which dubbed the phenomenon a ‘soft lockdown.’  

People get tested for Covid at a Pop Up Site on Broadway and West 72nd Street in New York City on Christmas Eve

A view of the cancellation notice for the Lion King musical at the Minskoff Theater on December 23, 2021 in New York City as voluntary shutdowns spread

A view of the cancellation notice for the Lion King musical at the Minskoff Theater on December 23, 2021 in New York City as voluntary shutdowns spread

The Vanderbuilt Resturant on Bergen Street in Brooklyn is seen shut down as scores of restaurants and bars close due to staff outbreaks and mass booking cancellations

The Vanderbuilt Resturant on Bergen Street in Brooklyn is seen shut down as scores of restaurants and bars close due to staff outbreaks and mass booking cancellations

Daily new COVID cases in New York City are seen hitting new records in the chart above

Daily new COVID cases in New York City are seen hitting new records in the chart above

As the country prepares to enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, most experts are predicting a massive surge in cases in January and February, as the current situation in New York spreads to the rest of the country.

However, there are increasing signs that Omicron, though highly transmissible, may cause less severe illness, resulting in lower rates of hospitalization and death.

On Thursday, Britain’s Health Security Agency released a study suggesting that s the risk of hospitalization from the hyper-contagious strain is 70 percent lower than from the Delta variant.   

It has raised hopes that, along with widespread vaccinations, it could be possible to achieve herd immunity with a minimum of deaths. 

‘The best possible scenario is Omicron tears through the population, it causes a month or a month and a half of economic disruption and illness, and then we’re through it,’ Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and academic dean for Brown’s School of Public Health, told Axios.

But she went on to warn: ‘The worst-case scenario is Omicron ends up being much more severe, overwhelms and crushes our hospital systems, and then gets followed by a worse variant.’ 

Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed the sentiment telling the outlet: It’s conceivable that, sooner or later, that everybody will have been infected and/or vaccinated or boosted.’

‘When you get to that point, unless you have a very bizarre variant come in that evades all protection — which would be unusual — then I think you could get to that point where you have this at a steady level,’ he said. 

In that scenario, COVID could become a background concern similar to the seasonal flu, still causing illness and death but not spurring widespread disruptions.

In the meantime, though, the Omicron surge is causing widespread disruptions and forcing economic forecasters to rapidly revise their predictions about the pace of recovery.

Thousands of flights were cancelled in the U.S. over the holiday weekend, with airlines reporting COVID-related staffing problems.  

Nearly 740 flights were canceled within, into, or out of the United States on Monday morning, a tally on flight-tracking website FlightAware.com showed.

The flight cancellations on Monday were on top of over 3,000 cancellations during the Christmas holiday weekend, typically a peak time for travel for Americans.

Yet on Monday, strong retail sales underscored the strength of the economy and overshadowed worries from Omicron-driven flight cancellations at the start of this year’s final trading week.

A woman wearing a mask and 2022 Planet Fitness New Year's Eve hat takes a selfie in Times Square on December 23, 2021 in New York City

A woman wearing a mask and 2022 Planet Fitness New Year’s Eve hat takes a selfie in Times Square on December 23, 2021 in New York City

Leland Eating and Drinking House is seen shut down on Dean Street in Brooklyn

Leland Eating and Drinking House is seen shut down on Dean Street in Brooklyn

A view of Christmas Art installations on December 23, 2021 in New York City. Nine Broadway shows have announced cancelled performances due to a surge in COVID-19 cases

A view of Christmas Art installations on December 23, 2021 in New York City. Nine Broadway shows have announced cancelled performances due to a surge in COVID-19 cases

Minutes after the opening bell, the S&P 500 was up 22.82 points, or 0.48 percent, at a record high 4,748.61. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 114.80 points, or 0.32 percent, at 36,065.36, while the Nasdaq Composite was up 78.09 points, or 0.50 percent, at 15,731.46.

In New York, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio reluctantly reduced the attendance cap for his Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration, which will mark the end of his eight years in office.

Viewing areas that normally accommodate about 58,000 people will be limited to about 15,000 to allow for more distancing, and everyone in attendance must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, de Blasio said. 

In the United Kingdom, there are similar creeping moves. Scotland will close its nightclubs Monday after Northern Ireland and Wales already did so on Sunday, though they remain open in England. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has resisted ordering new restrictions but hasn’t ruled them out, is expected to be briefed Monday on the latest data on the spread of omicron.

Even that staple of British holiday celebrations, the steady stream of English Premier League games, is under threat. The league has already called off 15 soccer matches in two and a half weeks and more could well be upcoming.

U.K. daily infection numbers reached a new high of 122,186 on Friday, but there were no figures over the long Christmas weekend.

France has recorded more than 100,000 virus infections in a single day for the first time in the pandemic and COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled over the past month. President Emmanuel Macron’s government is holding emergency meetings Monday to discuss the next steps in tackling the virus.

It is hoping that stepped-up vaccinations will be enough. The government is pushing a draft law that would require vaccination to enter all restaurants and many public venues, instead of the current health pass system which allows people to produce a negative test or proof of recovery if they´re not vaccinated.

This piecemeal, often hesitant approach is visible through much of Europe. 

In Poland, a nation of 38 million where the daily death toll now often breaks through the threshold of 500 cases, nightclubs may be closed, but they will be allowed to reopen on New Year’s Eve, with the government unwilling to go against the many voters opposed to restrictions and mandatory vaccinations.

In Italy, the government has not mandated any rules for private gatherings, but it has set its sights on New Year´s Eve, banning outdoor events and closing discotheques until the end of January.

The Netherlands is currently the exception to the rule of disjointed decision-making. 

The government there has gone farther than most European countries and shut down all nonessential stores, restaurants and bars and extended the school holidays in a partial new lockdown. 

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