Last year, tens of millions of Americans were forced to abandon holiday travel plans due to the surging coronavirus pandemic. This year, more than 100 million estimated travelers nationwide nervously watch a persistent delta variant and a recently discovered omicron variant threaten gatherings once again.
“I haven’t seen my mother in a year, and I can’t imagine a world in which I can’t go home to see her for the holidays,” said Autumn Town, a New Orleans resident and co-owner of Pete’s Out in the Cold, a local bar. “We’re changing our plans a little — we won’t go out to restaurants like we normally might. But I get so few chances to see family already, I refuse to miss this one.”
New Orleans is a major tourist destination, and Town said many small businesses thrive on the increased tourism the holiday season brings. Like many locals, she said she’s torn over the best way to proceed as COVID-19 numbers rise again.
“Nuanced is the best way I can describe my feelings,” she explained. “On one hand, I know the most important thing is to keep people safe. I certainly agree with that. On the other hand, I know that if we prematurely shut things down again, small businesses like mine will suffer. And the people we employ at small businesses will suffer, too. Those are really people who endure real consequences when we’re closed.”
As the pandemic inches closer to the two-year anniversary of its arrival in the United States, a growing number of Americans are fatigued and frustrated by the strain the coronavirus has put on daily life.
“I think a lot of people are just having trouble caring as much as they did a year and a half ago,” Town explained, “and there are good reasons for that, like vaccines that are helping keep us safer. But, still, when a customer comes into the bar and yells about having to wear a mask, you can tell nerves are running thin.”
Omicron on the rise
The United States is averaging more than 130,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, according to Johns Hopkins University. That number is up 10% from a week ago and back to levels reached during last summer’s surge of infections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Monday that the omicron variant accounted for 73% of cases reported in the United States last week and is now responsible for the vast number of new infections across broad stretches of the country. Health officials continue to collect data on the virulence of omicron and the extent to which current vaccines provide protection.
Many Americans are eagerly awaiting those findings.
“I’ve used science as my guide on how to act during the pandemic, and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” said Dan McGrath, a college counselor living in New Orleans. “I see the data that is suggesting this variant spreads faster but is less severe, but I also know we tend to learn more about these things as experts have more data.”
McGrath said he and his wife had a vacation planned for the holidays but decided to cancel it for fear of bringing the virus back to their 6-month-old son. McGrath said they have had no problem going out in the city, where 80% of the eligible adult population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. They go to restaurants, grab a drink with friends, and work in schools. But their vacation destination in Arkansas felt different.
“There’s only a 40% vaccination rate in that particular (Arkansas) county,” he said. “That gave us pause, but if I was only worried about my wife and I, we probably would have still gone. We’re vaccinated. We wear masks. But we have a baby at home, and even a moderate risk doesn’t feel worth it.”
Balancing the risk
Mariana Martelli, a communications professional in New Orleans, said she has remained vigilant throughout the pandemic.
“I got my booster (shot) as soon as it was available, and I still wear my mask as much as I did at the height of the pandemic,” she told VOA.
Still, as careful as she’s been, Martelli acknowledged some pandemic fatigue has set in.
“I’ve started to go on work trips more frequently, and I’m meeting friends in larger groups again. I’m vaccinated, and I’m not worried about dying from COVID like I was earlier in the pandemic. I’ve kind of accepted that I might get it at some point, but we have good methods of treatment now.”
Drug manufacturers Pfizer and Merck have developed pills currently being tested that aim to reduce the severest symptoms of coronavirus for patients. Meanwhile, vaccine manufacturers are exploring adjusting vaccines to target new variants.
Despite increased confidence she would not get severely sick, Martelli said she wished she would have been more careful as the holidays approached. It was just announced that on a recent work trip, several fellow employees tested positive for coronavirus. Martelli, herself, is now experiencing symptoms and is awaiting test results that will determine whether she can travel home to Florida to see her family.
“There were precautions taken,” Martelli said. “We each took a rapid test before every meeting. It just shows you that anything can happen. But now, I wish I wouldn’t have gone. My parents are older, and my nephew is at-risk and too young for the vaccine. I’m just waiting for my test results and hoping (for the best). I’d be devastated if I can’t see them.”
'What are we supposed to do?'
“Of course, I’m worried,” Town said, when asked if she was nervous businesses could be shut down again if coronavirus cases continued to climb. “But what are we supposed to do? Stop living our lives indefinitely? I want to keep people safe, but I also think we need to be careful that we don’t close down too soon if the virus doesn’t appear too dangerous. It’s complicated, and I guess I’m just happy I don’t have to make the decision for everyone.”
Town said she has seen shops recently close temporarily due to staff or customers getting sick. It reminds her of the longer-term closures she’s endured over the last 21 months, a result of the pandemic and Hurricane Ida.
Not only has it been a difficult stretch for her business, but also for many of her customers who have had to suffer while largely isolated. Small businesses like her bar, she said, are important places for people to be social.
“New Orleans is such a communal place,” Town explained. “We love to gather. Humans, in general, need to gather. The holiday season — and Mardi Gras season right after — are important times to do that. Does that mean I have pandemic fatigue? Probably that’s some of it. But there’s also some real benefits to getting together with friends and family that we need to consider this time of year.”