American corporations, government officials and other institutions are once again weighing the risks of Covid as they plot an operational path forward during the holiday season.
But this time, instead of facing a scared public, they’re dealing with a largely vaccinated population increasingly exhausted by the virus and its variants.
The result is a jumbled, contradictory response to the omicron variant.
Professional sports leagues are postponing games, the World Economic Forum is pushing back its annual Davos conference, and colleges restricting indoor gatherings. Meanwhile, younger audiences helped “Spider-Man: No Way Home” score the second-biggest weekend opening in box office history, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will take place on schedule on Jan. 5, and government leaders in New York are assuring constituents that schools won’t close even as city classrooms temporarily shut down.
A lack of leadership, both federally and locally, has led to small factions operating in their own self interest rather than following a unified policy, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. That’s happened because the public has seen Covid responses as both hyper-political and unreliable, Gordon said.
“There is no authoritative anchor to where we are or what we should do,” Gordon said. “Does anyone believe what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says anymore? Ten years ago, people trusted the CDC. If you don’t trust the people who are supposed to be smart, you’re left to your devices.”
Omicron has rapidly become the dominant Covid variant in the U.S., with unvaccinated patients largely accounting for an increase in hospitalizations. Vaccinated and boosted people appear to be well-protected from serious illness if they catch omicron.
Health authorities have directed their warnings mainly toward unvaccinated people, although they’ve offered guidance to vaccinated people, too. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said people don’t need to quarantine if they’re vaccinated and exposed to the virus, and advised vaccinated people to wear masks indoors. The National Institutes of Health’s former chief, Dr. Francis Collins, warned unvaccinated people against travel altogether.
“The one thing we know now from almost two years experience with this virus is that it is really very unpredictable, particularly with the element of variants.” Fauci said on Sunday. “It really is something that is very much unprecedented in terms of outbreaks.”
That unpredictability has helped drive Americans toward exhaustion. A Monmouth University survey released last week noted people are growing increasingly frustrated with the virus and policies to combat it. Sixty percent of respondents said they feel at least somewhat “worn out” by how Covid has impacted their daily lives, according to the survey. Republicans and Democrats polled nearly identical on the issue.
Workplaces are once again closing as Omicron spreads, and corporations are canceling holiday parties. Apple has delayed its return to work indefinitely. Google has delayed its return-to-work plan. Broadway has begun canceling shows.
Visits to retail stores dropped 26.3% on Saturday compared with the Saturday before the pre-pandemic Christmas of 2019, according to preliminary data from Sensormatic Solutions, a division of Johnson Controls.
But so far, American travel appears to be relatively normal, and restaurant bookings have thus far held up against prior months, albeit while consistently trailing pre-pandemic levels.
As of Monday, seven-day air travel averages haven’t shown a downturn in airline bookings, according to TSA data.
Over the last seven days as of Dec. 19, restaurant reservations are down 13% overall versus 2019. In New York City, the decline is more drastic — down 46%. But in Nashville and Las Vegas, the number of people going out to eat in the past week is higher than at pre-pandemic levels, according to OpenTable.
It’s possible the coming weeks will lead to a significant pullback. Still, that seems unlikely, particularly as the holidays approach, as long as scientific evidence shows hospitalizations among vaccinated people remain low.
Instead, responses to the virus are increasingly conflicting, with some organizations taking precautions while other people plow forward with their daily lives as they can.
It’s not just local and national leaders that have lost standing, Gordon said. Individuals have become more isolated in their thinking because basic discourse about facts has become too politized. That’s led to a further push away from collective action and a move toward chaos.
“Have we lost the ability to think intelligently to think about Covid?,” Gordon said. “Have we lost the ability to discuss it intelligently? Is there room for intelligent discourse? Or are you either an intelligent science believer or an ignorant science denying yahoo?”
-CNBC’s Nate Rattner and Spencer Kimball contributed to the reporting of this story.
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