By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen
(Reuters) - Millions of Americans are pushing ahead with holidays that include cross-country flights, busy tourist attractions and indoor dining, even as the surge in COVID-19 infections fueled by the Omicron variant forces them to adapt some plans on the fly.
Debbie Rodriguez said she thought "long and hard" about canceling this year's family Christmas trip to New York City before opting last-minute on Thursday to travel from Houston.
"We just decided we're not going to live in fear," said Rodriguez, 48, as she waited for luggage at New York's LaGuardia airport with her husband and two children.
Rodriguez said her fully vaccinated family had planned to see the Rockettes' Christmas show before it was canceled due to the COVID outbreak, so they will instead check out landmarks including the Statue of Liberty and Central Park.
On Christmas Day, they will dine indoors at a restaurant in Harlem away from the crowds, then visit the Empire State Building, she said.
COVID-19 infections have surged in the United States in recent days due to Omicron, which was first detected in November and now accounts for approximately 73% of cases across the country and as many as 90% of cases in some areas, such as the eastern Atlantic states.
While Americans scramble for COVID-19 tests and weigh varying public health guidance about how to gather safely for a second Christmas marked by the pandemic, many showed they were willing to brave the latest surge in order to enjoy holiday traditions such as worshipping and eating out.
The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday screened 2,081,297 passengers through the nation's airports, an increase of 144,000 over the number of travelers it screened pre-pandemic on the same date in 2019.
In-person Christmas services will be held at all churches and parishes in the Archdiocese of New York, which includes more than 2.5 million Roman Catholics across 10 counties, communications director Joseph Zwilling said.
There will be no new restrictions in place because of Omicron, but Zwilling said the Archdiocese would continue to require mask-wearing and social distancing as it has since last year. "The existing measures have been working," he said.
Two of Washington, D.C.'s Michelin-starred restaurants, Kinship and Metier, are fully reserved and have waitlists for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, said chef and owner Eric Ziebold. To-go orders have increased for Christmas Eve, but it is too early to say the same for New Year's, he said.
"Guests want to get through one holiday before they focus on the next, especially since new details about the Omicron variant are announced daily," he said.
In the last seven days, the average number of new COVID cases has risen 37% to 165,000 per day, according to a Reuters tally https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/united-states. Deaths and hospitalizations, which can be lagging indicators, are relatively unchanged nationwide.
Cases have risen 96% so far in December, while deaths are up 55% and hospitalizations have increased 28%. In anticipation of an even larger surge of cases requiring medical attention or hospitalization, the Centers for Disease Control late Thursday cut its recommended quarantine period for COVID-positive healthcare workers who are asymptomatic to seven days from 10.
"As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to Omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio all set one-day records for new cases this week, according to the Reuters tally.
U.S. health officials have said people who are fully vaccinated should feel comfortable proceeding with holiday travel and family gatherings. They warned those who are unvaccinated are at higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus.
"We should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked," President Joe Biden said in a Twitter post on Thursday, after outlining his latest steps to combat the virus earlier this week.
Omicron's rapid spread will also put a damper on New York's iconic New Year's Eve celebration for a second straight year. Mayor Bill de Blasio said attendance for the midnight ball drop in Times Square will be capped at 15,000, roughly a quarter of the typical pre-pandemic crowd size.
In Manhattan’s Bryant Park on Thursday, bundled-up skaters circled the outdoor ice rink with views of the Empire State Building as carols and Christmas pop songs boomed from loudspeakers.
At the rink's edge, Reneé Rosenthal, a 51-year-old merchandising representative for Hallmark greetings cards, embraced a friend she has known since elementary school in New Jersey.
Rosenthal said she booked the five-day trip with her husband and two teenaged children from their home in Houston in the summer, when everything seemed like it was getting back to normal.
They had tickets for “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center, but the performance was canceled after too many dancers tested positive for COVID. They also had tickets to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but abandoned the idea when they saw the long line to show proof of vaccination.
They switched their plans to include a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park and a sightseeing tour on an open-top double-decker bus.
The skating and reunion with her old friend still worked out, however.
"This is the only thing we had planned that we didn’t have to change," Rosenthal said.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely, Lisa Shumaker, Rich McKay, Julia Harte and Jonathan Allen; Writing by Julia Harte; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)