Last week, federal health officials found themselves in a sticky situation. Guidance the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued on Oct. 4 called for a socially distanced holiday season. The advice mirrored much of the guidance published for the 2020 holiday season when vaccines were scarce and urged that “the safest way to celebrate is virtually, with people who live with you, or outside and at least 6 feet apart from others.”
“Attending gatherings to celebrate events and holidays increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the CDC said. If the gatherings are indoors and in-person, the CDC said that doors and windows should be opened, and window fans turned on to increase ventilation.
But over the next 24 hours, the CDC walked back its recommendations, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, said it was “too soon to tell” whether Americans can safely gather for the holidays. “I will be spending Christmas with my family. I encourage people, particularly the vaccinated people who are protected, to have a good, normal Christmas with your family,” he said last week.
The holiday season is imminent. And the CDC’s flub made one thing clear: COVID-19 will continue to be on people’s minds through the end of the year.
“I actually think caution is warranted still for this holiday season because we’re nowhere out of the woods for this pandemic,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. “We don’t have herd immunity. We don’t have vaccinations for children. We know there are breakthrough infections.” But Halkitis, who has advised the Murphy administration on its COVID-19 response, nonetheless called the CDC’s announcement a “misstep.”
“There’s confusion already for people and that didn’t help matters,” he said in an interview. Many Americans, he added, are “somewhere in the middle” between outright skepticism and denial of COVID-19 protocols and the vaccines on the one hand, and public health experts on the other hand still urging caution, “and they don’t know what the hell to do.”
For Halkitis, caution might mean only gathering with other people who are vaccinated, use of a mask, keeping gatherings on the small side, avoiding crowds, and replacing family-style meals with individual portions.
Murphy, when asked about the original CDC guidance, contended that COVID-19 is largely here to stay, if not as a devastating pandemic, then as a year-round endemic. “It’s never going to be zero,” the governor said on Oct. 4 before the CDC pulled back its guidelines. “The operating assumption, folks, is it’s going to be in our midst.”
So people are going to learn to adapt. They want to get out and live their lives safely, wearing masks when necessary and getting the vaccine, said Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “People are realizing that this isn’t going away, that we have to learn to live with it, but we have to live,” she told NJBIZ. “People are doing what they’re comfortable with.”
That means more family gatherings for the holiday season and certainly more shopping, though high-risk workers like health care staff and other front-line personnel might be more inclined to wear a face-covering or stay on the sidelines.
Sylvia Twersky, a public health professor at The College of New Jersey, expressed a similar sentiment. “People who are fully vaccinated and not living with anyone at risk,” like the unvaccinated, immunocompromised or elderly, “may choose to just live their regular life,” she said in an email. “COVID-19 is not something that is going away anytime soon, so we are all practicing risk reduction based on our tolerance for and personal understanding of the risk.”
As for her confidence about the holiday season, Siekerka pointed to a report from the NPD Group, a retail analyst firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. The Sept. 30 study found that 29% of consumers plan to spend more this year on holiday shopping than in 2020, citing the ability to finally see family again for the holidays.
Nearly 60% said they’re comfortable shopping in stores because of the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, while two-thirds of U.S. consumers “expect their 2021 holiday season will be more like it was last year, than it was during the pre-pandemic holiday season in 2019.” NPD said overall holiday sales in November and December should rise 3% over last year and increase by 5% during the extended holiday season of October through January.
Nonetheless, businesses across industries that typically enjoy a holiday boom said they see uncertainty, either from COVID-19 and the delta variant, or ancillary effects of the pandemic such as labor shortages and the supply chain disruption.
Danielle Decostello, owner of Bella Organici Skin Bar, a spa with a locations in Cranford and Millburn, said interest is weak in services typically offered during the fall when kids are back in school, and during the winter and holiday season. The business offers waxes, eyebrow work and facials, which are particularly popular during the holidays.
“People are like ‘I’m home, I don’t really need it, I’m wearing a mask when I’m [out],’” she said.
Sharon Spatucci, who owns Sugarplum Studio, an edible art studio in Cherry Hill that offers baking and cake-decorating workshops, said her operations were slammed during the pandemic closures and expects a 50% drop in sales through the holiday season.
She was pessimistic enough that Sugarplum Studio will be closing for good Dec. 30, citing “18 months of rising cost of goods and materials, a labor shortage, and declining ticket sales from distanced seating and capacity mandates, plus a marked reduction in private party bookings.”
Travel, another holiday-centric industry, could also take a hit this season. “We are not expecting holiday travel to be what it once was pre-COVID,” said Tracy Noble, a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association, which analyzes the nationwide travel industry in all its modes of transportation. “Unfortunately, it is a wait and see game.”
Airfare is not expected to be particularly high for Thanksgiving since it’s “typically a drive holiday to begin with,” meaning many Americans would likely “keep their plans with family if they are driving to their destination.”
More avid travelers are willing to navigate COVID-19 restrictions and more people are in fact traveling than before, but volumes are not close to the widely expected rebound. Data from Airlines for America, a trade group, showed U.S airline passenger numbers down 22% compared to pre-COVID, while scheduled flights are down 17% and ticket sales are 38% lower. A recovery to 2019 levels is not expected until at least 2022, or in 2024, in a pessimistic scenario.
But United Airlines, which uses Newark Liberty International Airport as one of its national hubs, announced on Oct. 7 that it was adding flights in November and December for what it called a “surge in holiday travel.”
“We know families and friends are eager to reunite this holiday season, which is why we’re thrilled to add new flights that will help them connect and celebrate together,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of network planning and scheduling, a statement. Gupta cited “a lot of pent-up demand in our data.”
And Cris Candelinoat, president of travel agency Prestige Travel in Highlands, said many holiday season bookings made earlier in the year have yet to be cancelled.
Slow supply chains
With COVID-19 becoming more endemic, businesses might have more pressing concerns, suggested David Marcotte, of Kantar Retail, where he analyzes retail and technology trends. Such issues range from persistent labor shortages that could continue through the end of the year, skyrocketing costs for goods and widespread shipping delays due to a nearly two-year upheaval of global supply chains.
“The current recommendation is buy for Christmas today, forget about prices … it might not show up until Christmas,” he said. “COVID’s impact in terms of manufacturing … and then in terms of demand … and the ability for supply chains to manage all the tensions in between has been the number one story for the last year.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates one of the nation’s busiest ports, the Port Newark-Elizabeth Terminal, reported that August 2021 was the third-busiest month in the bi-state agency’s 100-year history.
That’s not normal, Marcotte said. And it’s only going to get worse heading into the holidays. “It takes one thing to cause it to fall apart,” he said of the global supply chain, “because there’s been so much stress on the system.” Average shipping times have soared from between 25 and 30 days to between 90 and 220 days in some instances.
Siekerka agreed. Those “hot-button issues” like supply chain delays will continue to be on many businesses owner’s minds through the holidays. “We’re going to continue to see the challenge of brick-and-mortar stores,” she said.
In a particularly pessimistic scenario, labor shortages could mean “shorter retail hours” during the holidays, and restaurants doing away with sit-down dining “because they simply don’t have the people to run the restaurant, so they’re doing take-out,” Marcotte said.