COVID-19 variant disrupts vacation travel but not shopping

The latest variant of COVID-19 upends the vacation plans of tens of thousands of travelers, but it hasn’t done much harm to vacation shopping.

Airlines canceled hundreds of more flights on Sunday, citing staffing issues related to COVID-19, as the country’s travel problems dragged on beyond Christmas, with no clear indication that normal hours would resume.

But shoppers ignored the omicron variant and holiday sales grew at the fastest rate in 17 years, according to a measure of spending.

Omicron is likely to slow the economy’s surprisingly strong rebound from last year’s coronavirus recession by disrupting travel and discouraging some consumers from venturing out. The variant could also add more heat to already simmering inflation by forcing factory and port closures, delaying shipments and driving up prices.

“A full reopening of the U.S. economy will once again be delayed,” said Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, a trade group of financial firms.

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But it is not yet known how deep the injury will be or how long it will last.

For now, the variant is wreaking havoc with travel. More than 1,100 flights entering, leaving or flying into the United States have been canceled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. That figure was up from nearly 1,000 on Saturday. About 130 flights have already been canceled for Monday.

Delta, United, JetBlue and American blamed omicron for staffing shortages that forced the cancellations.

“It was unexpected,” United spokeswoman Maddie King said of the variant’s effect on staffing.

Globally, airlines canceled more than 2,700 flights on Sunday evening, approaching the more than 2,800 cancellations the day before, according to data from FlightAware. The site does not say why the flights were canceled.

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JetBlue cut 11% of its flights on Sunday. Delta and United both waived 5%, according to FlightAware. All three airlines canceled more than 10% of their scheduled flights on Saturday.

Mason Herlocker waited at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Sunday to pick up his girlfriend, who was arriving from Paris. His flight was delayed for four hours.

It took him five hours to take a COVID-19 test the day before to enter the United States. She’s been visiting for three weeks, and Herlocker said he fears she could be stuck here if she doesn’t test negative before trying to return. at home in France.

Worried about his parents getting sick, Herlocker recently received a booster shot and encouraged others to get vaccinated too. He said he doesn’t believe the end of the pandemic is in sight.

“I believe this is the new normal,” Herlocker said. “I don’t foresee (the virus) going away anytime soon.”

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Aneesh Abhyankar arrived from Atlanta on Sunday and was waiting for a flight to India.

None of his flights were delayed or canceled, but he said news of the omicron variant encouraged him to speed up his travels to ensure he could get to his destination. He said face masks and vaccines are likely to become entrenched in everyday life for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think we have to worry if we take all the precautions, and I think we’ll get into a situation where we’re just living with” the virus, he said.

Despite omicron, American consumers seemed fearless. Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all types of payments including cash and debit cards, reported Sunday that holiday sales rose 8.5% from a year earlier, the largest annual increase in 17 years. Mastercard SpendingPulse expected an 8.8% increase.

The results, which covered November 1 to December 24, were driven by clothing and jewelry purchases. Holiday sales were up 10.7% from the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday season.

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After omicron arrived, 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 adviser to Mastercard and former CEO of Saks Inc. “When people feel a little bad, you’ll see a bit of an online recovery and a slight slowdown in store performance.”

Sadove said consumers are “learning to live” with what COVID-19 throws at them.

“You come out of 2021 with some consumer momentum,” he said.

Also on Sunday, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor admitted he was frustrated with the limited supply of COVID-19 tests.

Demand for testing increased amid omicron’s surge. “We obviously have to do better,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview that aired on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

“I think things are going to improve considerably as we go into January, but that doesn’t help us today and tomorrow,” Fauci said.

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Fauci said he was satisfied with the evidence that the omicron causes less severe disease for most people. But he warned against complacency as the rapid spread of the disease could “undo any real decrease in severity” as many more people could become infected.

There are still many questions about the severity of the omicron surge in the United States, Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja said Sunday.

“There are several signals showing a decrease in gravity. But the problem is that we have many high-risk people who are not vaccinated in certain parts of the country. And there are hospitals in those areas that are already treating a lot of delta patients,” Adalja said.

Meanwhile in Europe, France recorded more than 100,000 virus infections in a single day for the first time in the pandemic. Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have doubled in the past month as omicron complicates the French government’s efforts to avoid another lockdown. The total death toll in the country stands at more than 122,000.

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President Emmanuel Macron’s government has scheduled emergency meetings on Monday to discuss next steps. Some scientists and educators have urged delaying the return to school after the holidays or suggested reimposing a curfew.

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Wiseman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, Colorado, contributed to this story.

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