Omicron Is Pushing America Into Soft Lockdown

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Nobody wants to mandate business closures, but so many people are getting sick that businesses are closing anyway.

“I do not see a scenario for any kind of shutdown,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared this week, as parts of New York were in fact shutting down all around him. Broadway canceled show after show. Restaurants closed their kitchens. De Blasio’s successor, Eric Adams, who will take office January 1, nixed his inauguration gala. There has been no March 2020–style universal shutdown, but New York is not back anymore, baby.

For Brent Young, who runs a butcher shop and two restaurants in Brooklyn, it began last week when, one by one, staff members tested positive. “It’s more or less decimated our workforce,” he says. One of his restaurants had been booked solid with parties for a week—the holidays are one of the busiest times of the year for restaurants—but people started canceling those parties too. At this point it’s not worth trying to stay open, Young says, “because the anxiety’s so high no one’s wanting to eat.” For most vaccinated people, Omicron will be mild. But even a mild cold, sufficiently widespread, can disrupt a city.

A voluntary suspension of activity—a soft lockdown, essentially—will help dampen transmission of the coronavirus. This happened all over the country in spring 2020, when people began staying at home before official stay-at-home orders came down, says Saad Omer, an epidemiologist at Yale and a co-author of a paper that studied the phenomenon using anonymized cellphone data. It’s intuitive, really. “Things become more salient; you react on that,” Omer says. This feedback loop, which conventional epidemiological models entirely ignore, can help determine the shape and duration of the Omicron wave—but exactly how is hard to predict.

[Read: The liberals who can’t quit lockdown]

The classic “epi curve” shows cases rising exponentially until so many people are immune that the spread of the virus has to slow. Then cases fall exponentially. But if soft lockdowns help suppress that viral spread, then cases will drop off sooner, while many people are still susceptible. In other words, “when you see a peak and see it go down, it doesn’t mean the risk has abated,” says Joshua Weitz, who studies viral dynamics at Georgia Tech. According to work by Weitz and his colleagues, this helps explain why COVID cases have peaked and plateaued multiple times over the course of the pandemic. Those peaks also tend to be asymmetrical, with steeper rises than falls. This too may be related to behavior: People might become more careful when they see an initial surge in cases but let their guard down when pandemic fatigue sets in. Just as our voluntary actions can act as a brake on rising cases, they can also slow a wave’s decline. Omicron is surging at a time when Americans are already weary of the pandemic, so this soft lockdown may not last very long. And in communities where people are very over COVID, it may not happen at all.

Predicting how humans behave has been one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic. It’s easier to look at the impact of official policies that have start and end dates, like last year’s school or business closures. Now the shutdowns are much more of a patchwork, with some businesses closing and some events canceled, says Micaela Martinez, an infectious-disease ecologist at Emory University. Case trends will be hard to interpret over the next few weeks. In London, where the Omicron-fueled growth of cases already seems to be slowing, a number of factors may be at the root: behavior changesmaxed-out testing capacity, or the virus running into a wall of immunity.

[Read: Omicron is the beginning of the end]

Whatever the effect of a soft lockdown on the spread of Omicron, it will affect the economy too. Even if customers remain willing to go out, businesses will have to close when too many employees end up sick or get stuck in quarantine. It’s why the NHL canceled its games through Christmas and why several museums in London have closed their doors. Shortening isolation periods in light of Omicron might help minimize these disruptions. The U.K. is now allowing sick people to test out of isolation at day seven, and the U.S. is considering a shorter period for vaccinated people with breakthrough cases.

In a soft lockdown, businesses are also on their own. Last spring’s stay-at-home orders came with unemployment assistance and emergency loans. None of that is coming this time. “All of the decision making is put on the small-business owners,” Young says. He’ll have to shoulder the cost of closing his businesses, and then just hope they can reopen soon. In the meantime, he says, he’s buying all the rapid tests he can.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.