US begins pandemic-changed holiday season

Fewer shoppers braved a trip to the shopping centre on Black Friday this year due to COVID-19.
Fewer shoppers braved a trip to the shopping centre on Black Friday this year due to COVID-19.

Pandemic-weary Americans have entered the holiday season 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hinted on Friday 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 in place so the drug can be quickly distributed once it is approved, a person familiar with the matter says.

COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations have spiralled in recent weeks, prompting increasingly aggressive clampdowns in many US states.

One day after the nation celebrated a muted 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, while online sales surged.

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

Los Angeles County on Friday banned all public and private gatherings outside of household members, with exceptions for church services and protests. Residents should stay home "as much as possible".

About 90,000 patients were being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals on Friday, a number that has doubled in the past month and is the highest since the pandemic began.

The country has had more than 13 million coronavirus cases and more than 264,000 deaths.

Some politicians and health experts said Americans travelling for the Thanksgiving holiday could spread the contagion even faster and push the already strained healthcare system to the brink.

Many Americans heeded the advice to stay home for Thanksgiving on Thursday. Others chose to travel, saying they were willing to risk illness to see family members.

Nearly six million Americans flew from Friday to Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration says, a number that is, however, less than half that of the same period last year.

Australian Associated Press