Fearing omicron variant, holiday revelers curb celebrations

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People walk past a Christmas tree in King’s Cross train station, in London, the Eurostar hub to travel to European countries including France, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. After the U.K. recorded its highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain. Hours later, the country set another record, with a further 88,376 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, almost 10,000 more than the day before. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — Christmas revelers across Europe are lying low, and U.S. officials are intensifying calls for unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated in the face of the new omicron variant, which threatens to wipe out a second holiday season that many hoped would bail out pandemic-battered industries.

Scotland and Wales on Friday pledged millions of pounds for businesses hurt in Britain’s latest infection surge, a move that heaped pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to do the same in England. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak held talks with business representatives who have demanded more support, decrying a “lockdown by stealth” in which government officials recommend people cut back on socializing as much as possible without officially imposing the strict rules of past shutdowns.

In the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration resisted tightening any restrictions, but also sketched out dire scenarios for the unvaccinated in a plea for hesitant Americans to get the shot.

“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday.

Several European countries are warily watching the spread of omicron. On Friday, Denmark decided to close theaters, concert halls, amusement parks and museums in response to a rapid rise in virus cases. In Spain, friends and classmates canceled traditional year-end dinners.

Concerns about omicron were especially palpable in Britain, which reported record numbers of infections three days in a row this week, the latest on Friday with more than 93,000 cases tallied.

Businesses ranging from vacation providers to pubs and theaters report a wave of cancellations as customers decide to skip merrymaking for now rather than risk being infected and missing family celebrations later. Experts say omicron appears to be more contagious, but little else is known — and the uncertainty itself is enough for many people to change their plans.

Even Britain’s Christmas pantos — beloved and raucous holiday performances — are under threat. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in western England had to refund 180,000 pounds ($240,000) in ticket sales after customers decided not to go to shows. It was also forced to cancel 12 performances of “Beauty and the Beast” because half the cast tested positive.

“There’s been a real dent of confidence,’’ Executive Director Joanna Reid told the BBC.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Friday that financial assistance for business must come from the central government because it has the borrowing power to finance the scale of aid that is needed.

“Business is already bleeding, every 24 hours counts,” Sturgeon said during a briefing in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. “There is no time to waste.”

The already beleaguered travel and tourism industry is being particularly hammered.

Eurostar, which operates trains across the English Channel, sold out of tickets to France on Friday before new rules restricting travel to and from Britain took effect. Long lines snaked around the parking lot at the Eurotunnel, which runs the tunnel that drivers use to cross the water.

But for much of the travel industry, the story was of trips not taken. Ryanair originally expected to carry about 11 million passengers in December, but that figure dropped to 10 million, chief executive Michael O’Leary told the Guardian. Europe’s biggest airline will also cut about 10% of its capacity in January.

Amanda Wheelock, 29, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, canceled a trip to France with her partner as cases spiked there. Even though the surge isn’t necessarily due to omicron, the uncertainty about the new variant, and a new requirement that all U.S. travelers have to test negative before flying back to the U.S., made her worry that the trip would be more stressful than fun.

Instead, she’s traveling to the Anchorage, Alaska, area to see friends. She feared that she would spend much of her trip trying to avoid getting infected — thus not taking full advantage of being in France.

“A vacation with a lot of stress is probably not a great vacation,” said Wheelock, who is from Arvada, Colorado.

She is not alone. The Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 U.K. travel agents, said business fell by 40% in mid-December from a month earlier. Those numbers, including flights, cruise bookings and package holidays, add to the travel industry’s existing slump, which had already seen business fall by two-thirds since the pandemic began, CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said.

“Our members are dealing with customers who are really nervous about traveling now,” she said “They’re really nervous about bookings for the New Year because they fear that there’s a risk that the government will make more knee-jerk reactions.”

Many in the travel and hospitality trades hoped they had put the worst behind them, nearly two years into a pandemic that has devastated those industries. They saw this holiday season as a chance to claw back some of what was lost — until omicron cast a pall reminiscent of the early days of the crisis.

Richard Stevens estimates he has lost out on 4,000 pounds ($5,300) worth of bookings at his rental ski chalet in the French Alps after the new, stricter travel rules for people coming from Britain were announced.

He lost his first reservation when a guest called to say that the restrictions won’t allow anybody to come to France without a compelling reason, Stevens said. “And the compelling reason doesn’t include going on holiday.”

Celebrity chef Michel Roux and other restaurateurs have invested heavily to remake their venues to address safety concerns — and hoped to reap some of the benefits.

To return to a state of huge uncertainty for the second Christmas running is “like a kick in the stomach,” said Roux, who has a destination restaurant in London.

Jorge Riera, who manages a traditional Spanish diner in central Madrid, said it doesn’t matter that authorities have not imposed specific restrictions and, at most, have only issued recommendations.

“Most of our customers prioritize the well-being of their relatives over going out for a fun night with colleagues,” Riera said.

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In the past week alone, cancellations rolled in for about half of the booked space, sometimes on the same day of the event, the manager said. On Friday, he was awaiting a call from a group of 45 people who had reserved an ample space for a birthday party — but would only confirm the booking at the very last minute.

“People are once again afraid of the virus,” he said.

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