Covid Live Updates: More Flight Cancellations Upend Holiday Travel
Thousands of would-be travelers received the same troubling message on Thursday: a last-minute cancellation of their Christmas flights on Friday and Saturday because of the recent spike of Omicron cases, including among airline workers.
The number of cancellations globally as of Friday morning added up to more than 3,000, the Flight Aware website showed. It was the latest blow to the holiday season, mainly caused by the new and highly transmissible Omicron variant, which now accounts for more than 70 percent of new coronavirus cases in the United States.
Delta Air Lines said that it had canceled about 135 flights for Friday after exhausting “all options and resources,” including rerouting and substituting planes and crews to cover scheduled flights. It attributed the cancellations to “a combination of issues, including but not limited to, potential inclement weather in some areas and the impact of the Omicron variant.”
United Airlines canceled at least 150 flights scheduled to leave dozens of airports on Friday — along with 44 more that were supposed to take off on Saturday, according to Flight Aware. Other airlines, including JetBlue and Allegiant, did likewise, although American Airlines said on Friday morning that it currently had no flight cancellations.
In Australia, dozens of flights were canceled at airports in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne as coronavirus cases in the country surged to their highest since the start of the pandemic. And in Europe, a spokeswoman for the Eurostar train service said on Friday morning that because of travel restrictions across the continent, a small number of trains had been canceled amid a drop in demand.
United said in a statement that Omicron’s “direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation” had led to the cancellations. Crew members have been calling in sick, according to a spokesman, Joshua Freed, who said United had alerted customers as soon as it was able to. And while Mr. Freed said he did not expect the airline to cancel more flights, it remained a possibility.
“We are really managing this day by day,” he said. “There may be some more flight cancellations for Saturday. It’s possible.”
Customers took to social media to air their grievances about the cancellations.
In Australia, which has recorded more than 500 Omicron cases, many airline staff members are unable to work after being identified as close contacts of positive coronavirus cases, airline officials said. Under government requirements, they are required to isolate for seven days.
“A large number of our frontline team members are being required to test and isolate as close contacts given the increasing number of cases in the general community,” a representative for Jetstar Airways said by email on Friday. “As a result, we have had to make some late adjustments to our schedule.”
Staffing shortages across various sectors have been affecting services in many countries as the virus continues to spread.
England said this week that it was reducing the number of days that people must isolate for after showing Covid-19 symptoms to seven days from 10 days, a change that officials said could help alleviate the shortages. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a similar move on Thursday, though that change applies only to health workers.
President Biden will remove the ban on travel between the United States and countries in southern Africa at midnight on Dec. 31, a senior administration official said on Friday, reversing restrictions imposed last month to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.
The region’s leaders had denounced the ban as unfair, discriminatory and unnecessary.
Mr. Biden made the decision this week on the advice of his medical team based on findings that existing Covid vaccines are effective against severe disease with the highly contagious Omicron variant, especially among people who have received a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, the senior official said in an email.
The decision followed the British government’s announcement on Tuesday that it was lifting its restrictions on travelers arriving from 11 African countries.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advised Mr. Biden and his team that Omicron, which has passed Delta as the dominant variant in the United States, was so widely present across the world that it no longer made sense to restrict travel to and from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia, the official said.
The ban was announced on Nov. 26, after officials in South Africa reported the emergence of the variant, which has a large number of mutations that allow it to evade the immune response of even vaccinated people. The ban went into effect at midnight on Nov. 29.
The restrictions drew immediate criticism from regional leaders, critics from Mr. Biden’s own party and international health officials.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Matshidiso Moeti, the regional director for Africa for the World Health Organization, said at the time the ban was announced. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based.”
The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has spurred major holiday cancellations: The Rockettes canceled their Christmas Spectacular. “Hamilton” and “Aladdin” on Broadway have paused performances through this week. The New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square has been scaled back.
Holiday plans across the United States have followed suit, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity. More than 3,000 flights scheduled for Friday and Saturday were canceled as airlines reported that workers were falling sick with the virus.
Martha Blanco and her partner typically celebrate the holidays with her family in New Jersey. But, like so many others, this is the second year they won’t be making the trip.
With a deadline over her head and anxieties about Omicron, the pair decided to stay in Brooklyn, ride their bikes over the Brooklyn Bridge’s new bike lane and get dim sum — a meal they shared the day after their wedding — at Jing Fong, a Chinatown institution that recently reopened in a much smaller space. But even that caused concern.
“Once it became clear that the spread would be happening so quickly, we decided to cancel those plans, too,” Ms. Blanco, 32, said, adding that it had been a difficult decision.
Clarice Smith Drew, from Grand Rapids, Mich., is also suddenly staying in place. For over a year, she and her husband had been planning to visit their son in New York this holiday season. But on Sunday, after following the news about the spread of Omicron in the city, they canceled their flights, which were scheduled for Tuesday.
“Let’s just say we’re well over 60,” Ms. Smith Drew said. “So we thought it was best to just pull back on this.” She and her husband are both vaccinated and have received booster shots, but still did not want to take the risk.
“That was a hard decision on an emotional level,” she said. “On a more practical level, it was pretty easy to determine what to do.”
She and her husband will instead attend a small gathering, cautiously. “We haven’t reached hermit status,” she said, “but I’m very careful about where I go and how long I stay there.”
Pratap Ranade, 39, will not be seeing his family members as planned. On Saturday evening, he and his partner made the difficult decision to cancel their flights, which were scheduled for Sunday afternoon from New York to India. They had planned to see Mr. Ranade’s parents for the first time since Christmas in 2019.
“Over a span of what felt like 48 hours, suddenly I had a lot of people I knew who got sick,” said Mr. Ranade, who said he had made the decision largely out of concern of being exposed while traveling. “I definitely know we’re by no means alone. I think everyone’s feeling a pang of nervousness if you’re flying or sadness if you’re not.”
For most of the last three decades, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain has attended church services on Christmas Day in Sandringham, near her English country estate, and spent the day with immediate family.
But this year the holiday season is pointedly different as she celebrates her first Christmas without her husband, Prince Philip, who died in April, and as other family members mark the holiday at a distance.
Because of concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant, the monarch, 95, will instead spend Christmas at Windsor Castle. She will celebrate with her son Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, but her daughter Princess Anne is not attending because her husband, Timothy Laurence, tested positive for the virus, according to Buckingham Palace.
The queen’s grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, were not expected to travel to Britain for Christmas. The couple, who have a home in California, have spent much of their time in North America since quitting their royal duties in 2020.
Even as the British government has held off on imposing restrictions on Christmas gatherings, record levels of virus cases have disrupted holiday plans and contributed to a somber mood in the country.
The queen, who also spent last Christmas sequestered in Windsor Castle, has largely been absent from public view in recent months. In October, she canceled a trip to Northern Ireland because doctors advised her to rest, and she delivered a video address during the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow rather than attending a leaders reception as planned.
Last week, she canceled her annual pre-Christmas lunch for the royal family, a longstanding tradition, for the second year in a row because of concern about rising cases.
In her annual Christmas Day address, a recorded speech that will be broadcast on Saturday afternoon, she is expected to deliver a personal message, according to the BBC.
On Thursday, Harry and Meghan released afirst photo of their daughter, Lilibet, in a Christmas cardthat shows a smiling Meghan raising Lilibet into the air as Harry hugs their son, Archie.
Across Europe, pandemic fatigue is as palpable as the dampened Christmas spirit it has wrought. The fatigue of another named variant of the coronavirus and another wave of infections. The fatigue of another grim year watching New Year’s Eve gatherings get canceled or curtailed, one by one.
But along with the exhaustion, another feeling is taking root: that the coronavirus will not be eradicated with vaccines or lockdowns, but has become something endemic that people must learn to live with, maybe for years to come.
“The situation is different this time, and because of that, we’re taking different measures,” Prime Minister Pedro S?nchez of Spain said this week, adding that he understood that people in the country had grown impatient with the pandemic and that he was “fully aware of the fatigue.”
The rough outlines of how Europe might manage its latest outbreak were taking shape this week. Full lockdowns have mainly given way to less intrusive — and less protective — measures.
There is also growing evidence that the new Omicron variant is more mild, at least for vaccinated people. Studies in South Africa, England and Scotland suggested that while the variant is more contagious, it probably results in a more mild illness.
And vaccines appear to be doing their jobs — reducing the risk of severe disease and hospitalization, according to recent studies.
Not everyone agrees with a scaled-down approach, and it remains unclear whether that notion will survive the possible Omicron crush of hospitalizations that many scientists fear.
SEOUL — Suga, a member of the global K-pop phenomenon BTS, has tested positive for the coronavirus, the group’s management company said on Friday.
The company, Big Hit Music, said in a statement that Suga, 28, who returned to South Korea from the United States on Thursday, discovered on Friday that he was infected while in quarantine and after taking a P.C.R. test.
He had tested negative before traveling to the United States, the statement said, and had received his second vaccine dose in August.
Suga had no contact with the other members of BTS — RM, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — the statement said. He was not displaying any symptoms as of Friday, and he was isolating at home, the company said.
The news comes a month after another K-pop megastar, Lalisa Manoban, 24, of Blackpink, better known as Lisa, also tested positive for the coronavirus. The other members of Blackpink — Jennie, Jisoo and Ros? — tested negative for the virus, the production company, YG Entertainment, said in an emailed statement last month.
Suga, the stage name for the artist Min Yoon-gi, made his debut with BTS in 2013. The Korean pop group, a multibillion-dollar act, is known for dynamic dance moves, catchy lyrics and fiercely devoted fans.
In 2018, BTS became the first K-pop group to top the Billboard album chart, with “Love Yourself: Tear.” In September this year, the group gave a speech at the U.N. headquarters in New York, promoting coronavirus vaccinations and praising young people for their resiliency during the pandemic.
Suga has stepped out for solo projects, sometimes performing as Agust D, and as a commercial producer. In an interview with GQ Australia that was published this week, he said: “All three are me. They each take up a third of myself, and one isn’t more reflective of me than another. I simply give people a choice. These three sides of myself are incredibly different, so I’m giving people a choice to see me as they want.”
This week, Billboard’s Charts reported that Suga and Juice WRLD, the stage name for the artist Jarad A. Higgins, had the best-selling song in the United States with “Girl of My Dreams,” the first time a song by either artist to hit No. 1 on any chart, according to Yahoo News. Juice WRLD died in December 2019, and the song is part of the artist’s posthumous album, “Fighting Demons.”
John Yoon contributed reporting.