Omicron Is Pushing America Into Soft Lockdown
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.
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 changes, maxed-out testing capacity, or the virus running into a wall of immunity.
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.