NEWARK, NJ – The newest variant of COVID-19 is turning the vacation plans of tens of thousands of travelers upside down – but it didn’t hurt their Christmas shopping too much.
Airlines canceled hundreds of more flights on Sunday, citing staff issues related to COVID-19 as the nation’s travel problems stretched beyond Christmas with no clear indication of when normal flight schedules would resume.
But buyers shrugged off the Omicron variant, and Christmas sales rose as fast as it has for 17 years, according to a spending measure.
Omicron is likely to slow the unexpectedly strong economic recovery from last year’s coronavirus recession by cutting off travel and preventing some consumers from heading out. The variant could also fuel the already simmering inflation by forcing factory and port closings, delaying deliveries and driving up prices.
“A full reopening of the US economy will be delayed yet again,” said Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, a trading group of financial companies.
But it is not yet clear how deep the pain will go and how long it will last.
For the time being, the variant is making travel a problem. According to flight tracking website FlightAware, more than 1,100 flights entering, leaving or within the US have been canceled. That number had risen from nearly 1,000 on Saturday. Around 130 flights have already been canceled for Monday.
Delta, United, JetBlue and American have held omicron responsible for staff shortages that resulted in cancellations.
“That was unexpected,” said United spokeswoman Maddie King about the impact of the variant on staffing.
Worldwide, airlines suspended more than 2,700 flights by Sunday evening and were approaching the more than 2,800 cancellations the previous day, as data from FlightAware showed. The website doesn’t say why flights were canceled.
JetBlue scrapped 11% of its flights on Sunday. Delta and United have each canceled 5%, according to FlightAware. The three airlines canceled more than 10% of their scheduled flights on Saturday.
Mason Herlocker was waiting at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Sunday to pick up his girlfriend, who is arriving from Paris. Your flight was delayed four hours.
It took her five hours to take a COVID-19 test the day before to enter the US, home to France.
Concerned that his parents might get sick, Herlocker recently received a booster vaccination and encouraged others to have theirs too. An end to the pandemic is not in sight, he said.
“I think that this is the new normal,” said Herlocker. “I don’t expect (the virus) to go away anytime soon.”
Aneesh Abhyankar flew in from Atlanta on Sunday and was waiting for a flight to India.
None of his flights were delayed or canceled, but he said the news of the Omicron variant encouraged him to speed up his travels to make sure he reached his destination. He said face masks and vaccines are likely to be anchored in everyday life for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think we should be very worried if we all take precautionary measures and I think we’re going to get into a situation where we only live with the virus,” he said.
Despite Omicron, American consumers were intrepid. Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all types of payments including cash and debit cards, reported Sunday that holiday sales were up 8.5% year over year, the largest annual increase in 17 years. Mastercard SpendingPulse had expected an increase of 8.8%.
Results from November 1 through December 24 were fueled by purchases of clothing and jewelry. Compared to the holiday season before the 2019 pandemic, Christmas sales increased 10.7%.
After the Omicron hit, some consumers shifted their spending to e-commerce, but sales remained strong.
“I’m feeling really good with the season going on,” said Steve Sadove, Senior Advisor to Mastercard and former CEO of Saks Inc and a small slowdown in store performance. “
Sadove said consumers are “learning to live with” what COVID-19 throws at them.
“They’re coming out in 2021 with quite a bit of consumption momentum,” he said.
Also on Sunday, the country’s leading infectious disease doctor admitted he was frustrated with the limited availability of COVID-19 tests.
The demand for tests has increased amid the omicron surge. “We obviously have to do better,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview that aired on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“I think things will improve a lot in January but that won’t help us today or tomorrow,” said Fauci.
Fauci said he enjoyed the evidence that Omicron caused less serious illness in most people. But he warned against complacency because the rapid spread of the disease “could override a real reduction in severity” because so many more people could become infected.
There are still many questions about how bad the omicron surge is going to be in the US, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, Johns Hopkins’ infectious disease specialist, on Sunday.
“There are several signals that show decreased severity. But the problem is we have a lot of high risk people who are not vaccinated in some parts of the country. And there are hospitals in these regions that are already dealing with a lot of Delta patients, ”said Adalja.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the pandemic, France recorded more than 100,000 viral infections in a single day in Europe. COVID-19 hospital stays have doubled in the last month as Omicron hampers efforts by the French government to avert another lockdown. The total death toll in the country stands at more than 122,000.
President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has scheduled emergency meetings on Monday to discuss next steps. Some scholars and educators have pushed for return to school after the holidays to be postponed or for a new curfew to be imposed.