Lockdown-weary Americans begin holiday season under coronavirus pressures

Malls and retailers imposing strict Covid-19 rules saw fewer Americans in stores for the traditional Black Friday start of the holiday shopping season. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Pandemic-weary Americans entered the holiday season on Friday (Nov 27) under strong pressure from political leaders and health officials to stay home, avoid gatherings and curtail Christmas shopping as they wait for promised Covid-19 vaccines.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hinted on Friday that the first of those medications could be close to government approval, as it posted notice of an emergency meeting for Tuesday to vote on the "allocation of initial supplies of Covid-19 vaccine."

United Airlines has begun using charter flights to put shipments of a vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc in place so the drug can be quickly distributed once it is approved, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations have spiralled in recent weeks, prompting increasingly aggressive clamp-downs in many US states.

One day after the nations marked a diminished Thanksgiving, malls and retailers imposing strict Covid-19 rules saw fewer Americans in stores for the traditional Black Friday start of the holiday shopping season.

"Remember, skip the crowds and shop from home this Black Friday," Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a first-term Democrat, wrote on Twitter, a sentiment echoed by many state and local officials.

Los Angeles County health officials on Friday banned all public and private gatherings outside of household members, carving out exceptions for church services and protests.

Residents were urged to stay home "as much as possible." Roughly 90,000 patients were being treated for Covid-19 in hospitals on Friday, a number that has doubled in the last month amid rising infections and is the highest since the pandemic began.

The US Supreme Court late on Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional an order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo severely limiting the number of people who could worship at churches and synagogues in the state.

Mr Cuomo dismissed the ruling as "irrelevant," saying it was narrowly tailored to specific areas no longer subject to the limits. But it could drive legal challenges against similar rules placed on houses of worship in other US states.

"It is fair to say that this Supreme Court ruling has broader implications and governors would be wise to be guided by it in any attempts to single out houses of worship for disparate treatment," Mr Randy Mastro, lead attorney for the Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn in the case, told Reuters.

Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said this week her latest Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings also applied to indoor religious services, reducing the maximum number of worshippers from 100 people to 50.

Some medical centres and intensive care units are already being pushed beyond capacity.

"This is the reality we face when Covid-19 is allowed to spread unchecked - ICUs at capacity, not enough healthcare workers available," New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a tweet.

Ms Grisham, a Democrat, did not say who she believed had let the virus spread unchecked. The governor has imposed a lockdown requiring all "non-essential" businesses to close and residents to stay home.

Around 880 people were hospitalised with Covid-19 on Friday in New Mexico. A hospital in rural Curry County was the latest to reach capacity in its intensive care unit this week, according to the county's Facebook page.

Some politicians and health experts fear Americans travelling for the Thanksgiving holiday could spread the contagion. Many heeded the advice to stay home for Thanksgiving on Thursday. But others chose to travel, saying they were willing to risk illness to see family members.

On the day before Thanksgiving, typically one of the busiest travel days of the year in the United States, more than 1.07 million people transited through US airports - the most of any single day since the start of the pandemic, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Over 4 million travelled through airports from Sunday to Thursday, compared to over 11 million for the same period last year, TSA data shows.

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