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Is Christmas Canceled? Questions About A U.S. Omicron Lockdown Linger

With the omicron variant taking hold as the delta variant wanes, some Americans are reassessing their holiday plans.

Last year, in a world without Covid vaccines, Christmas looked nothing like it normally does for many Americans. 

Lockdown rules varied by city and state, but holiday travel was well below normal levels, according to data from AAA. That was expected to change this year, but the flaring omicron variant and the relatively little we know about it put a pretty big question mark on what Americans might actually do.

On Dec. 15, AAA said that it expected that "more than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — will travel 50 miles or more as they hit the road, board airplanes or take other transportation out of town between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2."

That would have been 27.7 million more Americans traveling than last year, bringing numbers back to 92% of 2019 levels, with airlines seeing a 184% year-over-year increase. Those numbers, however, seem less certain just a few days after they were published, as omicron has led to a number of shutdowns and events being rescheduled.

Omicron Has Already Led to Changes

Omicron-related closures, policy changes and restrictions have varied by geography, with some states stricter than others. Companies have also taken widely varied approaches, including:

  • The National Hockey League began its holiday break two days early
  • "Hamilton" and other Broadway shows have canceled performances due to cast members testing positive
  • Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report has tightened on-board mask rules requiring that vaccinated passengers wear masks indoors except when actively eating or drinking while stationary (all passengers 12 and over must prove vaccination and provide a negative Covid test to board)
  • The National Football League has pushed some of its games to later dates than they were scheduled for and the league has changed its policy for clearing vaccinated players who test positive
  • Radio City Music Hall has canceled the Rockettes Christmas show for the rest of 2021

That's not an exhaustive list, but it's an ominous one, as cancellations mount and Christmas creeps ever closer. 

Georgia College and State University Assistant Professor of Business Nicholas Creel told TheStreet via email that he does not expect widespread lockdowns.

"From a policy standpoint, it seems exceedingly difficult to believe the impending [o]micron wave will result in a shutdown or other such meaningful clamp-down. The political will for such drastic actions is simply nonexistent at this point," he wrote. 

Creel cited recently-updated guidance from President Joe Biden's White House as proof that lockdowns and even canceled travel plans or enhanced federal rules won't be coming:

One specific piece of evidence suggesting that the political will for any sort of shutdown is gone is the fact that the Biden administration is indicating that they are going to suggest that vaccinated individuals are free to go about living their lives while the unvaccinated should prepare for a 'winter of severe illness and death.' This isn’t the messaging of an administration looking to push for a shut down; it’s a clear signal that, with free and effective vaccines readily available, they are ready to simply let the virus run its course.

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No widespread attempt at a national lockdown means that Americans remain free to travel during the holiday season. But that does not mean that there won't be an impact on their plans, Dan North, senior economist at Euler Hermes North America, told TheStreet. 

North cited a long list of events that have been canceled due to omicron, while also noting that some areas have brought back mask mandates.

"The sector most likely at risk is leisure and hospitality which will likely start to have limitations on the number of customers they can have. The same thing is true of retailers who may have to limit the number of shoppers in their stores," he said.

North, however, does not see a lockdown coming.

"I do not foresee, at the moment, a total lockdown like March and April of 2020, or like Austria is having now. I do think that after the new year, people will slow down their spending and stay inside more due to the uncertainty the omicron variant is causing," he added.

Walking a Political Tightrope

Fordham University Economics Professor Tory Tassier told TheStreet that lockdowns and cancellations could actually lead to fewer people getting vaccinated. 

He points out that vaccinations are the best defense against the spread of Covid and explained in an email to TheStreet that increased restrictions might discourage people from getting vaccinated 

"Some of the vaccine-hesitant only got vaccinated in order to attend indoor gatherings, to eat in restaurants, and to enjoy the other freedoms that being vaccinated provided," he wrote. "If we lock those things down, some people are going to feel duped and some are going to remain unvaccinated because an incentive to get vaccinated has disappeared."

Another significant factor for Biden and politicians at state and local levels is how willing Americans are to actually abide by new restrictions. 

Psychology Professor Dean McKay, a past president of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, believes that some Americans simply won't follow any restrictions. 

"This is due to a robust COVID disregard syndrome, whereby segments of the population harbor beliefs that the risk of infection is very low, that the risk of serious illness if infected is also low, and/or that the rate of transmission is negligible," he told TheStreet via email. 

"This COVID disregard syndrome will likely be greater given that many people who were more reluctant to get vaccinated are likely to disregard the rules."