Omicron variant disrupts vacation travel but not shopping
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The latest variant of COVID-19 is shaking the vacation plans of tens of thousands of travelers – but it hasn’t done much damage to vacation shopping.
Airlines canceled hundreds of additional flights on Sunday, citing staff issues related to COVID-19, as the country’s travel problems lingered beyond Christmas, with no clear indication of when normal hours would resume.
But buyers have ignored the Omicron variant, and holiday sales have grown at the fastest rate in 17 years.
Omicron is likely to slow the surprisingly strong rebound in the economy from last year’s coronavirus recession, disrupting travel and likely discouraging some consumers from venturing into stores, restaurants and bars. The variant could also add more heat to already latent inflation by forcing shutdowns of factories and ports, delaying shipments and pushing up prices.
But we don’t yet know how far the injury will go or how long it will last.
For now, the variant is wreaking havoc with travel. More than 700 flights entering, leaving or flying in the United States have been canceled, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. That figure was down from nearly 1,000 on Saturday. More than 50 flights have already been canceled for Monday.
Delta, United and JetBlue have blamed the Omicron variant of the coronavirus for staff shortages that have forced cancellations.
“It was unexpected,” United spokeswoman Maddie King said of Omicron’s impact on staff.
Worldwide, airlines cut about 2,200 flights Sunday morning, up from more than 2,800 the day before, according to FlightAware data. The site does not say why the flights are canceled.
JetBlue cut 10% of its flights on Sunday. Delta canceled 5% and United canceled 4%, according to FlightAware. The three airlines canceled more than 10% of their scheduled flights on Saturday.
American Airlines spokesman Derek Walls said the Christmas cancellations were the result of illness calls linked to the virus.
Despite Omicron, American consumers seemed fearless. Mastercard Spending Pulse, which tracks all kinds of payments including cash and debit cards, reported on Sunday that holiday sales were up 8.5% from a year earlier, the biggest annual gain in 17 years. Mastercard SpendingPulse expected a 7.4% increase.
The results, which covered November 1 to December 24, were fueled by purchases of clothing and jewelry. Holiday sales increased 10.7% from the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday season.
After Omicron’s success, some consumers shifted their spending to e-commerce, but sales remained strong.
“I feel really good about the way the season has gone,” said Steve Sadove, senior advisor to Mastercard and former CEO of Saks Inc. “When people feel a little uncomfortable you will see a bit of a re-run and a little slowdown in store performance. “
Sadove said consumers are “learning to live” with what COVID-19 throws at them.
Also on Sunday, the country’s top infectious disease doctor admitted he was frustrated with the limited supply of COVID-19 tests.
Demand for testing increased amid the push fueled by the Omicron variant. “We obviously have to do better,” Dr Anthony Fauci said in an interview broadcast on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
“I think things are going to improve dramatically as January approaches, but that doesn’t help us today and tomorrow,” Fauci said.
Fauci said he was happy with the evidence that Omicron causes less severe illness for most people. But he cautioned against complacency as the rapid spread of the disease could “reverse a real decrease in severity” as many more people could be infected.
Meanwhile in Europe, France recorded more than 100,000 viral infections in a single day for the first time in the pandemic. COVID-19-related hospitalizations have doubled in the past month as Omicron complicates the French government’s efforts to avoid a new lockdown.
More than one in 100 people in the Paris region tested positive last week, according to the regional health service. Most of the new infections are linked to Omicron, which government experts say will be dominant in France in the coming days. Omicron is already dominant in Great Britain, across the Channel.
The total number of deaths in France is over 122,000.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government has scheduled emergency meetings on Monday to discuss next steps. Some scientists and educators have urged delaying going back to school after the holidays or suggesting reimposing a curfew.
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