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Americans fume as the pandemic scrambles New Year's Eve celebrations again

The 2022 sign that will be lit on top of a building on New Year's Eve is displayed in New York's Times Square earlier this month.
Seth Wenig
The 2022 sign that will be lit on top of a building on New Year's Eve is displayed in New York's Times Square earlier this month.

Updated December 30, 2021 at 11:28 AM ET

When Pam Mandel got the phone call this week that her cousin couldn't make the trip to Seattle to share New Year's Eve with her, she said it felt like a low blow.

"I have to tell you, I laughed because it was so weirdly predictable given how bad things have been," Mandel said.

The omicron variant is making the New Year's holiday hard for millions of Americans. As infections surge around the country, celebrations have been canceled.

Omicron is spreading rapidly

Cases of omicron are surging. The seven-day average topped 300,000, an 80% increase over last week. Although the percentage of cases that require hospitalization or cause death remain relatively low, the sheer infectiousness of the disease means many people will suffer.

"This virus has proven its ability to adapt quickly and we must adapt with it," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the latest pandemic-muddled holiday has left a lot of Americans seriously bummed. Air travel is a mess. College football bowl games have been scrubbed. The ball drop celebration will go forward in New York's Times Square, but with a much smaller crowd and strict mask rules.

It will be a suboptimal New Year's Eve for many

Even in Florida, a state that has tried to go full steam ahead through much of the pandemic, the Miami Hurricanes had to pull out of a football game and a production of the Nutcracker was canceled.

"We're probably just going to be at home," said Lala Tanmoy Das, who lives in New York City with his husband, Eric. "It's suboptimal, but here we are."

Das said he and his husband — both health care workers — scheduled some much-needed time off for a trip to Philadelphia to attend a New Year's Eve bash and a wedding the next day.

Then they tested positive for the coronavirus.

"It's sad ... we wanted to be with our friends," Das told NPR. "So all that is canceled. The couple also ended up postponing their wedding because so many people have tested positive from their guest list."

Experiencing feelings of disappointment, anger and isolation

People told NPR they tried to navigate Hanukkah and Christmas with good cheer and a stiff upper lip. But many said the disappointments of New Year's Eve left them feeling angry and isolated.

"We're afraid to have feelings about what's happening right now and that seems really unhealthy," Mandel said. "We're navigating this incredibly difficult experience and everybody is sitting at home quietly by themselves and I feel often that I would like to scream about it."

It's not just individuals trying to balance safety and health versus a sense of isolation and disappointment.

For the second year in a row, Susan Patterson was forced to shut down the "First Night" festival in Saranac Lake, N.Y., that she helps organize.

"We had a couple hundred people who would usually go," she said, noting that winters in her region of that state's north are long and social gatherings are important.

Canceled celebrations might be losing their momentum

"People have been calling to say how sad they are," she said. "I'm sort of afraid after two years of not doing [it], we're going to kind of lose the momentum and the excitement."

Patterson, who lives alone, said organizing the festival is also an important part of her winter — a way of connecting and celebrating.

Asked what she'll do now on New Year's Eve, she shook her head and laughed ruefully. "I don't know. Nothing."

Even without the pandemic, experts say the holidays can be a tough time emotionally for many people. Magdalena Bak-Maier, a neuroscientist and wellness coach, told NPR it's especially important this year to reach out and connect with others whenever possible.

"When people are feeling helpless in any situation, if we can't do it alone, we should certainly reach out for help through any possible means and not find ourselves isolated and alone and trying to deal with these emotions on our own," Bak-Maier said.

Get through the holiday and worry about the big picture later

She also said it can be helpful to focus on treating yourself well right now to get through a frustrating few days, without worrying too much about the big picture.

"I would invite people to really think about how do you construct the next 24 hours," she told All Things Considered host Elissa Nadworny. "How do you plan to make sure you have some things you can look forward to and begin to take that control back?"

Meanwhile, for people who choose to gather and celebrate despite the rise in omicron cases, public health officials are urging caution.

People who are vaccinated and have had their booster shots are most safe. Wearing high-quality masks and maintaining social distance whenever possible can also help lower risk. At a briefing this week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul also urged people to gather outside if weather allows.

"It's a little chilly, especially in upstate New York, but it'll be worth it when you have a chance to be together with your loved ones and friends this time next year," Hochul said.

Officials also say anyone feeling under the weather should definitely sit out this year's parties.

"If you're sniffling, if you're not feeling good, just stay home," Hochul said. "Watch the ball drop on television, get a nice glass of champagne and know you're doing the right thing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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