City and state officials across the U.S. have pledged to avoid the COVID-19 shutdowns that caused an economic upheaval in the first year of the pandemic. But a surge of cases and the spread of the omicron variant is leaving some restaurants, shows and schools no choice but to close their doors.
In New York City, Mayor-elect Eric Adams canceled his 3,000-person inauguration at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. The Rockettes ended their Christmas special at Radio City Music Hall, and more than a dozen Broadway shows including “Hamilton” and “Aladdin” canceled shows. Restaurants there and in Chicago, Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., closed amid staff outbreaks. And school systems like Prince George’s County, outside of Washington, D.C., sent students back to remote learning.
There were no government orders or local restrictions prompting the closures this time around. Rather, businesses were forced to close due to too many staffers getting COVID — or out of caution that staying open amid the case surge could contribute to the disease’s spread.
“No one saw this coming,” said Amanda McMillan, general manager of Four Horsemen, a Michelin star wine bar in Brooklyn that closed on Dec. 14 when a number of employees tested positive. “It had been a while since we had our public-health-scare hat on.”
McMillan, who plans to reopen ahead of the New Year’s Eve holiday, said she got flashbacks to the early days of the pandemic, when the restaurant laid off 44 people. “I feel a huge responsibility to keep things going. The first time there was Payroll Protection money and stimulus money; this time I don’t think that’s going to happen. We have to trudge along now,” she said.
The businesses are closing in the face of daunting COVID case numbers. The seven-day average of new cases in the U.S. has surged 43% in a month. In New York City, they have jumped more than sixfold.
But thanks to vaccinations, mask adherence and treatment breakthroughs, public health officials say hospitalizations and deaths haven’t climbed at anywhere near the rate of cases. And so, despite omicron’s rapid spread, the U.S. focus has been on persuading people to get vaccinated and boosted.
President Joe Biden announced new measures on Tuesday to curb the virus, including sending 500 million free COVID tests to homes and dispatching the military to help overwhelmed hospitals. He said the vaccinated should proceed with Christmas plans, and has rejected lockdown measures. Cases are expected to peak in January, as they did a year ago.
“Even though the numbers are higher, we’re in much better shape this year than last year,” said Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist in New York. “It’s OK if people are testing positive, as long as they’re not being hospitalized or dying.”
Still, omicron is highly contagious, whether one is vaccinated or not, Parikh said, and it has resulted in more breakthrough cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises someone with a positive test to isolate for 10 days and close contacts to quarantine for the same period — which is creating staffing shortages at hospitals, schools, restaurants and cultural venues.
On Wednesday, worker shortages led CityMD to close 19 of 150 sites in New York and New Jersey. “It is our hope that closing sites now will best allow us to avoid future closures as this surge continues,” the urgent-care center operator said on its website.
In Massachusetts, the American Repertory Theater canceled all performances of the “Wild” show starring Idina Menzel through Jan. 2 after breakthrough cases in the production team. “My heart is breaking that we are unable to continue to perform,” artistic director Diane Paulus said in an email to ticketholders.
In Atlanta, Chris Hall shut Local Three Kitchen & Bar on Dec. 19 after several employees tested positive. The closing came at the worst possible time, a holiday weekend booked solid with large Christmas parties, said Hall, chef-partner at Local Three and three other restaurants. “It was not exactly the best-case scenario, but it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Atlanta’s mayor on Tuesday reenacted a mask requirement in response to the surging cases. New York City instituted a private-sector vaccine mandate that goes into effect today in addition to vaccine requirements for entry to restaurants, shows and other indoor settings. Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot mandated vaccinations to enter restaurants starting Jan. 3.
“The last thing I want to do is stand before you at a podium like this and announce that we’re shutting our city back down,” Lightfoot said Tuesday. “That would be devastating. I don’t want to have to take that step. But again, it really depends on the unvaccinated.”
Chicago’s Goodman Theatre isn’t waiting around. On Tuesday, it suspended performances of “A Christmas Carol” through Friday after three members of the performance company tested positive for COVID-19. The theater is letting ticket-holders watch a recorded performance on video at home, a throwback to darker days.
“It was clear what we needed to do,” said Roche Schulfer, the theater’s executive director and CEO. “The safety of the company and the staff and the audience is paramount.”
The pause marked the first time the Goodman suspended paid performances since it reopened July 30 after shutting down March 13, 2020, because of the pandemic. The classic Christmas tale featuring Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit opened on Nov. 20.
There were 646 COVID-related K-12 school closings last week, up from 356 the week before, according to Burbio, a data service that aggregates calendars nationwide. At the college level, Cornell University and Princeton University are among those that closed early amid outbreaks, while others, including Harvard University, already are planning remote learning in January to protect against a COVID surge.
In anticipation of a greater COVID surge, some sports and cultural events were postponed. Los Angeles decided to cancel its in-person New Year’s Eve celebration at Grand Park. The county already required masking in public settings and businesses, and vaccinations for indoor dining and some other businesses like theaters, nail salons, gyms, museums and performance venues.
But many other businesses are staying the course. MSG Entertainment said last week that big events like a four-night Phish run at The Garden on Dec. 29 will go on. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on Tuesday offered $100 incentives for residents to get booster shots by Dec. 31, said the city’s massive in-person New Year’s Eve celebration was still on.
“No more shutdowns,” de Blasio said. “We’ve been through them, they were devastating. We can’t go through them again.”