Bus traffic to Mexico is bustling despite omicron fears


Despite an increase in COVID-19 cases and heightened fears of the newer omicron variant, Dallas residents are filling Mexico-bound buses for their traditional Christmas season trip that last year was interrupted by the pandemic.

Last year at this time, relatively few people had been vaccinated and virus-related border travel restrictions were still in place. The U.S, Department of Transportation estimated that business was down 48% compared to previous years.

Now, business is hopping for dozens of bus lines serving border cities and destinations deep within Mexico. Most run through Laredo and El Paso.

“Yes, we have more people than last year,” said José Rafael Ramírez, who works for Dallas-based Autobuses Pegaso. “A year ago buses were not full (and) we had fewer runs. But now buses are leaving full again”.

He said last winter his company trimmed schedules to one or two daily runs, compared to five or six full buses leaving their East Dallas terminal this year.

“People are relaxing (and) they feel more confident traveling,” said Ramírez, despite warnings from health officials about rising numbers of positive coronavirus cases.

Karisa Ocampo, 33, was traveling on a Dec. 18 Pegaso bus with her two children to spend the holidays with extended family in Guanajuato.

“When the pandemic started, I avoided traveling. But now, with the vaccine, I feel more safe,” said Ocampo.

The Texas Department of Transportation says bus companies provide service to Mexico for about 30,000 people during the holiday season.

The traditional annual journey is part of what colloquially is known as the Guadalupe-Reyes holiday, a period spanning from the Dec. 12 Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration to the Jan. 6 Kings Day.

Under a federal mandate, all bus passengers must wear a mask at all times at terminals and during the trip.

Although Pegaso staff ask passengers to wear masks during the trip, not everyone complies and the bus driver can’t supervise travelers to make sure they all follow instructions.

“For me, COVID is as if it wasn’t there at all. (My health is) normal. I haven’t even gotten vaccinated and I won’t (get vaccinated),” said Víctor Gómez, 61, who was traveling from Dallas to Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, to spend the holidays with his parents.

Dallas-based Greyhound Lines, Inc. serves border cities where it connects with it’s Mexican buses from its subsidiary Greyhound Lines México and Grupo Estrella Blanca. Greyhound has three daily runs from their downtown Dallas terminal to Monterrey.

“All customers, including those who have been vaccinated, are still required under federal law to wear a mask while in the buses, at our terminals and while boarding, even if boarding outdoors”, the company said in a statement.

Autobuses Tornado, another Dallas-based bus company, said it has seen an increase in passengers this holiday season compared to December of 2020.

“Tornado and El Expreso continue to implement sanitation procedures in all our buses,” the company’s website says. “Tornado and El Expreso Bus Company reserve the right to deny service to any customer showing (OVID-19) symptoms”.

Tornado also has routes within the U.S. to destinations like Nashville, Atlanta and Chicago.



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New border restrictions spark winter holiday fears


Increased restrictions on UK travellers are raising concerns for festive holidays around the world as countries move to curb the spread of the omicron variant.

Over the weekend, Germany followed in the footsteps of France by announcing a ban on most UK travellers. Since Sunday night, only German citizens or residents have been able to enter the country from the UK and are required to quarantine for two weeks, regardless of vaccination status.

European countries are also increasing their domestic restrictions. The Netherlands has been plunged into a full lockdown with non-essential shops, bars and restaurants forced shut on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Ursula Von der Leyen, the European Commission President, has said the European Union must consider imposing PCR tests on all travellers entering from outside the bloc. She called on EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday to introduce pre-departure tests and a second after arrival as part of a bloc-wide strategy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus variant.

Further afield, Thailand is considering ending quarantine-free holidays. Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told a local news programme about potential plans to return to hotel quarantine and the “sandbox” scheme, which allows trips to certain locations. 

Scroll down for more updates.





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Israel to update list of banned travel destinations daily amid Omicron fears


Coalition party leaders agreed to update the list of countries Israelis are barred from traveling to every 24 hours, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office announced Saturday, as the Health Ministry confirmed another 20 cases of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The move could reduce international travel by making it increasingly difficult to plan trips in advance.

“In the coming days additional countries will be added to the list of red countries in accordance with the Health Ministry’s definitions,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

The statement also said Bennett would seek to advance a plan limiting entry to malls to Israelis whose “Green Card” immunization passes have expired. Those eligible for the pass must have received a booster shot, been administered the initial two doses or recovered from COVID-19 in the previous half-year.

According to Channel 12 news, Green Pass holders will be given a bracelet upon entering a mall and will be allowed in all stores, while anyone without a Green Pass would only be allowed to enter shops deemed essential.

The network described the proposal as a legal workaround that will allow the unvaccinated from enter essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, and said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has given his legal backing.

People walk in a mall in the northern town of Rosh Pina on March 2, 2021. (Michael Giladi/FLASH90)

Also Saturday, Bennett and senior health officials discussed COVID-19 vaccines with the heads of Israel’s leading health maintenance organizations (HMOs), with a statement from his office saying inoculation rates “are insufficient at this stage.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Bennett called on the HMOs to use “all the tools at their disposal… to meet the vaccination targets.” The statement did not specify what the targets were.

“Our national strategy at this stage is twofold: First, to delay as much as possible the infiltration of the Omicron variant to Israel, and the second is to raise the vaccination level among Israeli citizens,” the statement quoted Bennett as saying.

He offered a fresh defense of the measures the government has imposed to prevent the spread of Omicron, which include tightened travel restrictions and tougher quarantine rules. Bennett also appeared to push back against criticism after reports said he proposed banning the unvaccinated from leaving Israel and ordering them into lockdown, but was opposed by health officials.

“The reason the situation is good in Israel is because we acted with speed and determination. They call this exaggeration? I call this responsibility,” he said. “The more we protect Israel from Omicron entering our borders, the more we can keep the economy open and allow the continuation of day-to-day life.”

He added that the government was “determined” to battle Omicron without imposing a lockdown.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via AP)

His comments came as newly verified Omicron cases brought the number of confirmed infections from the variant in Israel to 55.

According to the Health Ministry, 36 Omicron cases were among people returning from South Africa, England, France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Hungary, Italy and Namibia. It said 11 people were infected after exposure to travelers coming from South Africa and England, while eight cases were the result of community spread.

The ministry said 42 people infected with Omicron were “protected,” which it defines as those who received a booster shot, or who received their first two vaccine doses or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months. The other 13 cases were listed as “unprotected.”

The ministry also said it was waiting on the test results of another 51 cases in which there was a “high suspicion” they were Omicron.

In a first, the Health Ministry announced someone was hospitalized in serious condition from Omicron — an unvaccinated man. The ministry said he was one of 40 people with Omicron experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. No details were given on the vaccination status of the other symptomatic cases.

A health worker readies doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children, at a Clallit vaccination center in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Friday, Hebrew University researchers advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic called for increased enforcement of Green Pass rules and mask-wearing, in a report asserting that Israel’s fifth wave of COVID-19 has begun.

The latest Health Ministry figures showed 568 infections were confirmed Friday, with 0.68 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases ticked back above 100, days after dropping below that mark for the first time in four months.

The death toll remained at 8,210, with no new fatalities since Monday.


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Latest news updates: Travel stocks lead gains in Australia as fears ease over Omicron severity


Travel stocks lead gains in Australia as fears ease over Omicron severity

A board displays Qantas Airways flights at the company’s headquarters in Sydney
A board displays Qantas Airways flights at the company’s headquarters in Sydney © Bloomberg

Travel stocks led a rally in Australian equities on Tuesday after investors reacted to headlines that the new Omicron variant of coronavirus might be less severe than feared.

Shares in Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier, gained as much as 5 per cent, while travel groups Flight Centre and Corporate Travel Management both rose more than 6 per cent.

The increases, alongside strong gains for payments company Zip, helped pushed Australia’s benchmark S&P/ASX 200 up as much as 0.9 per cent.

Anthony Fauci, the top US health official, on Sunday called early signals about the severity of Omicron “encouraging”, telling CNN “we feel certain that there will be some degree and maybe a considerable degree of protection” with booster jabs.

Australia’s rally was followed by stocks in Japan, where the Topix gained as much as 0.8 per cent. In South Korea, the Kospi dipped, notching losses of up to 0.4 per cent.

Futures in mainland China edged higher and were up 1.7 per cent in Hong Kong, where markets closed 1.8 per cent lower on Monday.

What to watch in Asia today

Japan: The country announces its household spending figures for October, an important gauge of activity and confidence in the economy. It is forecast to be 2.8 per cent higher than in September, but still 3.9 per cent lower than October last year.

Australia: The Reserve Bank of Australia makes its monetary policy decision today, setting the country’s cash rate target. It will also deliver its assessment of the country’s current economic situation in its monetary policy statement. The target is forecast to remain unchanged, at 0.1 per cent, where it has been set since November 2020.

Markets: Wall Street equities rose on Monday, led higher by travel stocks, as fears that the Omicron coronavirus variant would lead to fresh lockdowns eased. The broad-based S&P 500 index rose 1.2 per cent on Monday, after closing down 0.8 per cent on Friday. The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite index closed 0.9 per cent higher on Monday. Australian stocks rose in early trading while futures in Hong Kong were up.

Travel stocks lead Wall Street higher as markets reassess Omicron risks

Wall Street equities rose on Monday, led higher by travel stocks, as concerns the Omicron coronavirus variant would lead to fresh lockdowns eased.

The broad-based S&P 500 index rose 1.2 per cent on Monday, after closing 0.8 per cent lower on Friday.

Travel-related stocks rallied with shares in Norwegian Cruise Line, United Airlines, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival all rising by more than 8 per cent.

Dr Anthony Fauci, US president Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, on Sunday called early signals about the severity of Omicron “encouraging”.

He told CNN that “we feel certain that there will be some degree and maybe a considerable degree of protection” with booster jabs. Market swings about Omicron are likely while scientists await conclusive data.

The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite index closed 0.9 per cent higher on Monday. The narrower gain continued a trend over the past fortnight, in which the Nasdaq has trailed the S&P 500.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose 0.09 percentage points to 1.43 per cent as the price of the debt fell.

Read more on the day’s market moves here.

Saudi Aramco to raise $15.5bn by selling stake in natural gas pipeline business

Saudi Aramco sign at the oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia
The sale is Aramco’s second big pipeline deal this year © Reuters

Saudi Aramco announced a deal to raise $15.5bn by selling a minority stake in a newly formed gas pipeline venture to a consortium of investors.

The world’s largest oil producer said on Monday it would sell the stake to a group led by BlackRock and the investment management arm of the General Organization for Social Insurance, a Saudi government body.

The transaction marks Aramco’s second big pipeline deal this year as it tries to monetise assets to generate cash for the government, its main shareholder.

The announcement followed a call earlier in the day from the company’s chief executive, speaking at the World Petroleum Congress in Houston, for global leaders to continue investing in fossil fuels in the years ahead or run the risk of spiralling inflation and social unrest that would force them to jettison emissions targets.

Read more on Saudi Aramco’s warning here.

BuzzFeed shares endure volatile debut on the Nasdaq

BuzzFeed’s first hours of trading as a listed company proved volatile, with shares swinging into negative territory from an early gain of more than 50 per cent.

The media group went public on Monday through a merger with a blank cheque company, or Spac, from which most of the investors in that vehicle had pulled their money out before the listing.

BuzzFeed shares jumped as much as 53.5 per cent to an intraday high of $14.77 in the first hour of trading on Monday. By late morning, they hit $8, representing a 16.8 per cent drop from the Spac’s adjusted closing price on Friday of $9.62.

Shares were down 8.9 per cent in late-afternoon trading.

Spacs had been one of the hottest products on Wall Street earlier this year, but have more recently fallen out of favour with investors.



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New Omicron variant spread fears as 13 passengers on flight from South Africa test positive in Amsterdam


AT least thirteen people have tested positive for the Omicron Covid variant after landing in Amsterdam on a flight from South Africa.

Dutch health authorities have confirmed 61 passengers are quarantining as they are infected with the coronavirus with at least 13 cases of the new super strain – but officials fear it is just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Dozens of passengers aboard flights from South Africa to Amsterdam have tested positive for Covid

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Dozens of passengers aboard flights from South Africa to Amsterdam have tested positive for CovidCredit: AP
Hundreds of people queued for Covid tests after flying into Schiphol

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Hundreds of people queued for Covid tests after flying into SchipholCredit: Reuters

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“The Omicron variant has so far been identified in 13 of the positive tests. The investigation has not yet been completed. The new variant may be found in more test samples,” the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said in a statement.

The passengers were among 600 to arrive at Schiphol Airport on two KLM flights on Friday.

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said at a press conference in Rotterdam.

“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday.

However, Mr de Jonge said passengers already en route to the Netherlands would be allowed into the country after undergoing testing and quarantine.

Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.

New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on a flight from Johannesburg who later tested negative, reported a “huge queue” to see Covid testers.

The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year Covid pandemic.

Dutch health authorities are also seeking to contact and test some 5,000 other passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe since Monda

It comes after it was confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK.

The Health Secretary said the dreaded super-strain has been reported in Chelmsford and Nottingham as fears of a second Christmas lockdown grow.

Mr Javid said the two individuals who have tested positive and all members of their households are now self-isolating.

They are being re-tested and have been told to self-isolate while further testing and contact tracing is underway.

Boris Johnson has added four more countries on the travel ban list in a desperate bid to avoid a fresh lockdown this Christmas amid Omicron variant chaos.

Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola were added to the travel red list at 4am today in addition to the six already on it – South Africa,

SUPER-STRAIN FEARS

Meanwhile, health chiefs say it’s overwhelmingly likely that “very high risk” Omicron is in Germany already after a traveller tested positive for a mutated form of the deadly bug.

Fears are intensifying over the Omicron variant – believed by experts to be the “worst variant ever”.

In Germany – which looks set to head back into lockdown as Covid cases spiral – a minister in western state Hesse said Omicron has already arrived.

“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose.

The state is home to busy Frankfurt Airport.

EU health chiefs have warned the new mutation poses a “high to very high” risk to Europe.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says there’s “considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant.”

‘HIGH RISK’

On Friday, video emerged of travellers being told they couldn’t get off a plane in Amsterdam after the first European case was confirmed in Belgium.

They were finally allowed off the jet after being tested and leaving their details with contact tracers.

Some nations, including Germany, are believed to be bracing for a ‘Code Black’ scenario – meaning medics will have to choose who gets treatment and who doesn’t.

The situation could soon worsen if Omicron spreads, it’s feared, and the strain has officially been named a “variant of concern” by the WHO.

Elsewhere, a state of emergency has been declared in New York, and President Joe Biden has banned travel from eight African countries.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told his officials to review plans to ease travel restrictions, but tighten border screening.

The country is the world’s second-worst affected by the pandemic. The government only decided yesterday to resume international flights from countries deemed ‘at risk’ of the virus.

The Red Cross took those infected into quarantine

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The Red Cross took those infected into quarantineCredit: EPA
Passengers queueing to board a flight to Amsterdam at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg today

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Passengers queueing to board a flight to Amsterdam at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg todayCredit: AFP
People on board a flight today from Johannesberg to Amsterdam after Dutch authorities confirmed 13 cases of the new variant

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People on board a flight today from Johannesberg to Amsterdam after Dutch authorities confirmed 13 cases of the new variantCredit: AFP
The Dutch government banned all flights from South Africa - but allowed in passengers already in the air when the decision was made

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The Dutch government banned all flights from South Africa – but allowed in passengers already in the air when the decision was madeCredit: Reuters

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Fears Covid super-strain Omicron is already in UK as 1st case confirmed in Europe and passengers banned from leaving plane





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New Poll Suggests Fears of Omicron Will Not Significantly Affect Travel


Americans are largely taking new COVID-19 variants in stride.

Polling conducted by MedJet found that travelers are keeping their plans in place in the presence of variants.

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MedJet polled members in November and found that more than 84 percent of those who responded had future travel plans in place. Ninety percent were planning to take a domestic trip in the next nine months and 70 percent expected to take an international trip within the next nine months.

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Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

The good news, when it comes to variants is that while 51 percent of MedJet members reported that previous variants and spikes had affected their future travel plans, only 25 percent of respondents reported having actually canceled because of them.

“Most just changed their destination, or mode of transport, or lodging,” said Gobbels. “Barring any more serious travel bans, which President Biden just announced he does not currently foresee, we expect a large portion of our members to continue traveling despite the emergence of Omicron. Some may need to make new plans if their flights or tours are canceled, or if border closures (like Japan and Israel currently) affect them.”

Unfortunately, while travelers may want to travel, many travel plans were affected by variants.

Fifty-one percent said previous variants and spikes had already affected future travel plans. Twenty-seven percent said variants, and spikes had not and 23 percent said that they weren’t sure yet.

One of the biggest concerns was that they would test positive for COVID-19 and not be able to return home. Forty-two percent said that they were worried about this, and 58 percent were more concerned about being hospitalized for COVID while away from home.

“That’s why we recommend travel insurance with trip interruption that covers COVID, to cover any additional hotel nights and rebooking flights,” said Gobbels, “and a Medjet membership to get moved to a hospital at home should you actually need hospitalization.”

Differing entry requirements in different destinations are one of the major challenges for travelers.

“One of the biggest frustrations we hear lately, from members calling in, is how varied the entry requirements are,” said Gobbels. “The advent of entry requirement search tools like SHERPA has been helpful for travelers researching and keeping track of requirements and changes. We actually added it to our website last month to help with that.”

For the latest insight on travel around the world, check out this interactive guide.

For the latest travel news, updates, and deals, be sure to subscribe to the daily TravelPulse newsletter here.





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Hong Kong Expands Travel Curbs on Omicron Fears, Australia Reports 5 Cases | World News


By Marius Zaharia and Renju Jose

HONG KONG/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Hong Kong expanded a ban on entry for non-residents from several countries as global health authorities raced to curb a potential outbreak of the Omicron virus, while Australia’s cabinet will review on Tuesday containment steps after five tested positive.

Singapore’s health ministry said two travellers from Johannesburg who tested positive for the variant in Sydney had transited through its Changi.

Omicron – first reported in southern Africa and which the World Health Organization (WHO) said carries a “very high” risk of infection surges – has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic.

Hong Kong is among the latest to expand travel curbs. In a late Monday statement, city authorities said non-residents from Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia would not be allowed to enter as of Nov. 30.

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“The most stringent quarantine requirements will also be implemented on relevant inbound travellers from these places,” the statement said.

Additionally, non-residents who have been to Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel and Italy in the past 21 days, would not be allowed to enter the city from Dec. 2, it added.

The global financial hub, among the last places in the world pursuing a zero-COVID strategy, earlier banned non-residents arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

In Australia, the five travellers with Omicron are all vaccinated and in quarantine, health officials said, adding they are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms.

Canberra delayed on Monday the reopening of the nation’s borders for international students and skilled migrants, less than 36 hours before they were due to be allowed back in.

“We’re doing this out of an abundance of caution but our overwhelming view is that whilst (Omicron) is an emerging variant, it is a manageable variant,” Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told a media conference in Canberra.

Growing hopes that Omicron will be milder than feared have helped restore some calm to markets this week, after a rout on Friday that saw roughly $2 trillion being wiped off the value of global stocks. [MKTS/GLOB][FRX]

Traders also took comfort from remarks by President Joe Biden that the United States would not reinstate lockdowns.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in remarks at the White House.

“We’re going to fight and beat this new variant.”

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia in Hong Kong, Renju Jose in Sydney and Reuters bureaus; Wtiting by Himani Sarkar; Editing by Shri Navratnam)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.



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Omicron Fears Shaking Global Film, TV Industry – The Hollywood Reporter


News from the World Health Organization that a new coronavirus variant, dubbed Omicron, discovered in southern Africa, was a “variant of concern” has hit the global entertainment industry with a sickening sense of déjà vu.

While little is yet known about Omicron, including its potential resistance to existing COVID-19 vaccines, the reaction to the news has been swift, with countries across the world introducing travel restrictions in an effort to slow down the global spread of the new variant. More than 40 countries, including the United States, the U.K., the European Union countries and Australia have imposed temporary restrictions on travel from southern African countries deemed “at-risk” including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. A few, including Japan and Israel, have shut down their borders entirely to non-citizens.

The moves come as COVID cases involving the Omicron variant have been confirmed in at least 15 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and Canada. The Omicron variant has a high number of mutations — around 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could allow the virus to spread more quickly and may make it harder for COVID vaccines to target.

That’s bad news, particularly for countries already seeing a spike in COVID infections involving the Delta variant. Europe has been particularly hard hit, with Austria introducing a new nationwide lockdown on Nov. 22, shutting cinemas, restaurants and other public venues, the Slovak government declaring a state of emergency and curfew on Nov. 24, and the Netherlands imposing a partial lockdown involving a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for most businesses, including theaters, from Nov. 28.

Elsewhere, governments are tightening COVID restrictions, a move many see as a prelude to a full lockdown. Several German states now require cinema-goers to prove they are fully vaccinated against COVID or have recovered from a COVID infection, with some requiring the vaccinated to also produce a negative PCR test for entry, a restriction called “lockdown through the backdoor” by Christine Berg, chair of German exhibitors association HDF Kino.

The impact of the new regulations, and growing safety concerns from visitors, is already showing up in attendance figures. There were 505,000 movie tickets sold in Germany this past weekend, a 37 percent week-on-week drop and the worst weekend showing since Sept. 24, 2020. Box-office receipts across Europe have been sliding over the past three weeks, notes Rob Mitchell, a box office analyst with Gower Street Analytics in London, though it’s not clear COVID has been the main cause of the decline.

There are serious concerns, however, that public fears over Omicron could prove a major blow to holiday returns. One U.K. exhibition executive pointed to the British government’s response to Omicron, which has included reintroducing compulsory mask-wearing in shops and public transport. If this measure were extended to include hospitality and cinemas, the exec notes, it would have an immediate impact.

“We know from every previous occasion that this [such measures are] a strong deterrent from impulse visits to the cinema, which is the lifeblood of what we do,” he said.

“The unfortunate thing about Omicron hitting now is that October was the first month where we were incredibly close to average box office returns pre-pandemic,” says Mitchell of Gower Street, noting that global box office for October was just 7 percent down from the three-year average for the month from 2017-2019.

Cinema closures in select territories and concerns over further lockdowns have led Gower to adjust downward its year-end prognosis for worldwide box office from $21.6 billion (its mid-October estimate) to $21.0 billion.

That figure represents a best-case scenario, in which there are only a few, smaller territories in lockdown and the studios continue to release their big titles as planned. A worst-case would see theater closures and declining box office trigger the studios to postpone or cancel their upcoming tentpoles, leading to the sort of negative feedback loop seen during the third wave of COVID last fall, where MGM’s decision to pull James Bond release No Time to Die led to exhibitor Cineworld shutting its doors, which in turn triggered further postponements and further closures.

“The title everyone is looking at right now is [Sony and Marvel’s] Spider-Man: No Home, which is the film exhibitors worldwide are counting on for the end of the year,” says Mitchell. “If Sony pulls Spider-Man, and everyone is hoping they don’t do that, or if the film does really poorly and people attribute that to COVID, we could see the studios start to pull their titles for the first quarter of 2022.”

So far, conditions in North America appear significantly better than in Europe and the major studios have not signaled plans to postpone or cancel the theatrical rollouts of major tentpoles. Alongside Sony’s Spider-Man sequel, 20th Century Studios’ Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story adaptation and Warner Bros.’ The Matrix Resurrections are still holding to their planned December release dates.

But the situation remains uncertain. While lockdowns in Austria and the Netherlands alone are unlikely to push the majors to push their tentpoles and scrap multi-million dollar ad campaigns, closures in major territories such as Germany, France or the U.K. could change the calculation. Here is where China could play an oversized role. The fact that Matrix Resurrections and Spider-Man: No Way Home have both been approved for Chinese release could tip the scales in favor of the scheduled rollout, with a staggered bow, or postponement, for smaller territories.

On the production side, there are also no signs, so far, of Omicron shutting down global film and TV shoots.

“Producers have come through the first three COVID waves and know what to do to keep things moving,” one veteran producer noted. But any potential wobbles could impact what is already a very overcrowded market, with studio space and crews at a premium.

“There’s a lot of push now where people are looking at Eastern Europe – the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary – so I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a lot more things moving there,” says British producer Jonathan Weissler. Unfortunately for studios in the region, COVID cases in the region are among the highest in Europe and vaccination rates among the lowest.

Omicron is casting a shadow of uncertainty over international industry events, including film festivals and trade fairs scheduled for the coming months. The International Broadcasting Convention canceled its in-person event, set to kick off in Amsterdam on December 3. International television showcase Content London, which runs Nov. 29-Dec. 2, appears to have narrowly escaped restrictions, with most delegates arriving just before the UK introduced new travel restrictions requiring a negative PCR test for overseas arrivals. For those arriving after, an on-site PCR testing site will offer same-day results.

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival, due to kick off Dec. 6, could become the first of many festivals to cancel in the wake of Omicron. The inaugural event, which was originally scheduled for March 2020 but became one of the first cancellations in the first COVID-19 wave, hopes to welcome a sizable number of African filmmakers, most from North Africa. Saudi Arabia has suspended flights from 14 southern African nations, but has said people “from all countries” would be able to travel so long as they had received one dose of the vaccine. Festival guests are currently being told they need proof of vaccination and a recent negative PCR test to attend.

The Berlin Film Festival is still planning to hold an in-person event from Feb. 10-20, 2022 with attendees required to be either fully vaccinated or prove they have recovered from a COVID infection. A Berlinale spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter that the festival was looking at other options, including requiring negative PCR tests, capacity restrictions and stricter masking requirements.

“The rapid development in the number of infections [in Germany] is of course worrying, so it is very important to consider further containment measures,” she noted. “It goes without saying that we are closely monitoring further developments.”





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Israel seals borders and Morocco bans flights as Omicron Covid fears rise | Coronavirus


Israel is barring entry to all foreign nationals and Morocco is suspending all incoming flights for two weeks, in the two most drastic of travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a series of measures including banning entry by foreigners, red-listing travel to 50 African countries, and making quarantine mandatory for all Israelis arriving from abroad. The entry ban is expected to come into effect at midnight local time (10pm GMT) on Sunday.

Morocco’s foreign ministry tweeted on Sunday that all incoming air travel to the north African country would be suspended to “preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens”. Morocco has been at the forefront of vaccinations in Africa, and kept its borders closed for months in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Israel cases

Many countries, including Brazil, Canada, European Union states, Iran and the US, have placed restrictions on travel from various southern African countries over the past couple of days since the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa.

Early evidence suggests the heavily mutated variant poses a higher risk of reinfection than earlier variants and that it could also be more transmissible.

The Dutch public health authority confirmed on Sunday that 13 people who had arrived on flights from South Africa on Friday had so far tested positive for Omicron. The Dutch health minister, Hugo de Jonge, said it was “not unlikely” that more Omicron cases would appear in the Netherlands. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Austria also announced that it had detected its first suspected case of Omicron, while the French health minister, Olivier Véran, said it was probably only a matter of hours before the variant was picked up in France. Cases have already been detected elsewhere in Europe.

Following the discovery of cases in the UK, the government reimposed some restrictions including compulsory mask wearing on public transport and shops in England.

Meanwhile, Swiss voters backed the government in a referendum on whether people going to bars and restaurants should show a Covid certificate to demonstrate their vaccination or recovery status. Early results shows that more than 60% chose to support the law on a 64% turnout. Opponents of the Covid pass had claimed the move would create an “apartheid system”. On Sunday police cordoned off government buildings and the Swiss parliament in the city of Berne in anticipation of protests.

Over the weekend, New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region.

Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travellers from certain countries, announced a ban on visitors from eight African countries. Similar restrictions took effect in the business hub of Singapore, which is barring entry and transit to anyone with a recent history of travel to seven southern African countries. Sri Lanka banned disembarkation of passengers arriving from six African countries, as did the Maldives.

The act first, ask questions later approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe. But many experts cautioned that so much was still unknown about the new variant, and the World Health Organization called for borders to remain open, noting that closing them often has a limited effect.

In the latest indication that the new variant may be hard to constrain, health officials in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, said two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening had tested positive. Both people were asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and in quarantine, NSW Health said. Another 12 passengers from southern Africa were also in 14 days of hotel quarantine, while about 260 other passengers and aircrew have been directed to isolate.

Israel also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to trace contacts of people in Israel confirmed with the new variant. Israeli rights groups had decried the use of the technology as a violation of privacy rights, and the supreme court ruled earlier this year that its use be limited.

Dr Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on Covid, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.

On Saturday, Israel said it had detected the new strain in a traveller who had returned from Malawi, and it was investigating seven other suspected cases. The seven people included three who were vaccinated, and all were placed in isolation.

Associated Press contributed to this report



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