Christmas revellers across Europe are lying low and US officials are intensifying calls for unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated in the face of the new Omicron variant, which threatens to wipe out a second holiday season that many hoped would bail out pandemic-battered industries.
Scotland and Wales on Friday pledged millions of pounds for businesses hurt in Britain's latest infection surge, a move that heaped pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Government to do the same in England. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak held talks with business representatives who have demanded more support, decrying a "lockdown by stealth" in which Government officials recommend that people cut back on socialising as much as possible without officially imposing the strict rules of past shutdowns.
In the United States, President Joe Biden's administration resisted tightening any restrictions, but also sketched out dire scenarios for the unvaccinated in a plea for hesitant Americans to get the shot.
"For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm," White House coronavirus response co-ordinator Jeff Zients said on Friday.
Several European countries are warily watching the spread of Omicron. On Friday, Denmark decided to close theatres, concert halls, amusement parks and museums in response to a rapid rise in virus cases. In Spain, friends and classmates cancelled traditional year-end dinners.
Concerns about Omicron were especially palpable in Britain, which reported record numbers of infections three days in a row this week, the latest on Friday with more than 93,000 cases tallied.
Businesses ranging from vacation providers to pubs and theatres report a wave of cancellations as customers decide to skip merrymaking for now rather than risk being infected and missing family celebrations later. Experts say Omicron appears to be more contagious, but little else is known — and the uncertainty itself is enough for many people to change their plans.
Even Britain's Christmas pantos — beloved and raucous holiday performances — are under threat. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in western England had to refund £180,000 ($240,000) in ticket sales after customers decided not to go to shows. It was also forced to cancel 12 performances of "Beauty and the Beast" because half the cast tested positive.
"There's been a real dent of confidence," executive director Joanna Reid told the BBC.
Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Friday said financial assistance for business must come from the central government because it has the borrowing power to finance the scale of aid that is needed.
"Business is already bleeding, every 24 hours counts," Sturgeon said during a briefing in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital. "There is no time to waste."
The already beleaguered travel and tourism industry is being particularly hammered.
Eurostar, which operates trains across the English Channel, sold out of tickets to France on Friday before new rules restricting travel to and from Britain took effect. Long lines snaked around the parking lot at the Eurotunnel, which runs the tunnel that drivers use to cross the water.
But for much of the travel industry, the story was of trips not taken. Ryanair originally expected to carry about 11 million passengers in December, but that figure dropped to 10 million, chief executive Michael O'Leary told the Guardian. Europe's biggest airline will also cut about 10 per cent of its capacity in January.
Amanda Wheelock, 29, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, cancelled a trip to France with her partner as cases spiked there. Even though the surge isn't necessarily due to Omicron, the uncertainty about the new variant, and a new requirement that all US travellers have to test negative before flying back to the US, made her worry that the trip would be more stressful than fun.