Holiday spirit glimmers as New York endures another pandemic Christmas

With their family Christmas celebration canceled for the second straight year, Robert Valley and Alexis Pagan sought some holiday cheer in Manhattan, inside the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store at Rockefeller Center.

There, with the famous Christmas tree towering over the bustling plaza outside, the specter of the pandemic seemed to fade a little.

“This is what we’ve got, this is what we’re holding on to,” Valley, 55, said through a mask emblazoned with the image of Santa Claus. “I said, ‘Let’s go see the tree, it will give us a little joy.’”

Pagan, 47, chimed in from behind her Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer mask. “Like there is a Christmas,” she said.

This year’s holiday season has been accompanied by an extraordinary surge in coronavirus cases linked to the fast-spreading omicron variant, which has proved capable of bypassing vaccines and has infected tens of thousands of people, ruining countless plans for a normal Christmas.

On Friday, New York state reported 44,431 new virus cases out of about 360,000 people tested, an increase of nearly 5,600 new cases day over day and the highest single-day figure since the pandemic began. A great number of those were in New York City.

But amid the spike — and the postponed parties, wrecked travel plans and interminable lines at overburdened testing sites — there were glimmers of the season to be found among New Yorkers brimming with determination to salvage what they could of Christmas.

On Thursday, on Frances Sacks’ 10th day of isolating after contracting the virus, she emerged from her apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood to search for a test. The goal: a negative result that would ensure that it was safe for her to spend Christmas in East Hampton, on Long Island, with her family.

After stopping at three pharmacies (rapid tests sold out), two urgent care centers (no tests available) and two testing sites (waits of at least three hours) — at one point crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan — she lined up at a pop-up testing site in the West Village.

Whatever the result, she still faced a dilemma.

“I don’t have any holiday gifts,” Sacks, 23, who works at a restaurant, said, shivering as she waited. “I have a lot of ‘the thought that counts’; but, hey, I had COVID.”

Sacks was just one of many who waited for hours this week, hoping for an answer that could make the difference between the warmth of a holiday with family or one more special occasion canceled — while understanding that the pandemic has done much more serious harm.

Candace Forbes, 32, a nurse from Brooklyn, waited eight hours with her children, ages 2 and 4, and her husband, Andre Forbes, at a pop-up testing site at a Canarsie playground. She left anxiously awaiting results, as well as feeling colder and wiser from the experience.

“If they’re coming out and they have toddlers, dress them overly warm,” she said. “If you have to bring a chair, bring a chair. If you have to bring a snack, bring a snack.”

Hanging in the air was the painful memory of similar lines in the pandemic’s early stages, when the virus was new and tests were scarce.

At Travers Park in Jackson Heights, Queens, Tommy Campos, a footwear designer who lives nearby, stood in a line of 30 people at a testing site that opened recently with federal support. He expressed disbelief at what he was seeing.

“We felt like we were at the finish line, we felt like things were good a couple of weeks ago,” Campos said as he waited. “And I guess it just got out of hand and went crazy.”

As if to underscore his concerns, the state health department issued an advisory Friday warning of an increase in the number of children being hospitalized in connection with the virus, particularly in the New York City area.

About half the children who were hospitalized were younger than 5, or too young to be vaccinated, health officials said. Most of the older children who were hospitalized had not been fully vaccinated.

In New York City alone, hospitalizations of children linked to the virus had risen “fourfold,” the advisory said. The health department did not provide total numbers of pediatric hospitalizations, but the upward trend mirrored reports of a growing number of coronavirus cases among children in South Africa after the omicron variant emerged there.

The rising number of cases overseas further complicated a travel landscape, threatening to unravel hoped-for holiday visits. As of Friday, 3,800 flights that had been scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day had been canceled, according to the flight-tracking website Flight Aware.

Some of those seeking tests, including Rica Ciocio, 52, of Long Island, had planned to fly to Romania, her homeland, with her family on Christmas to celebrate with her parents. She said she had not visited them in more than two years. But the surge in cases and vast backlog in testing made her worry they would not get results in time to go.

And so, on Thursday, Ciocio and her family made a pilgrimage from testing site to testing site across Manhattan, each getting tested several times and hoping that one location would deliver a result in time to save Christmas.

“It’s unsettling,” she said. “You never know what’s the right thing to do.”

To address the testing backlog, the city began distributing free at-home test kits at five locations, one in each borough, on Thursday morning, two days before Christmas. Two-thousand kits were supposed to be available at each.

On 18th Avenue at 65th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, a line began to form two hours before distribution began. It would later wrap around the block.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, access to speedy testing appeared to split along economic fault lines. There were no lines at all at MedRite Urgent Care on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, where people could avoid the typical waiting period of 48 hours or more to get results from a PCR test and learn their status in three hours it they paid $225 out of pocket.

In one quadrant of the Upper East Side, there appeared to be a testing tent, van or table on nearly every block — and even more on others. People passing unexpectedly empty sites jumped at the opportunity to get tested while knowing that the rest of the city was scrambling for tests.

“I saw this table and made my mom stop the car so I could get tested,” said Hannah Gelb as she stood waiting for a test at a PacGenomics site at the corner of 85th Street and Third Avenue.

Roberto Felix, a construction worker, stood nearby. He had been waiting in a long testing line elsewhere when his boss called and told him there was no line at PacGenomics. Felix hustled over.

“Because of Christmas, I wanted to make sure that I don’t have COVID,” he said.

For Marcone Santos, no test or line or fear could stand in the way of his joy.

Santos, a resident of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was at John F. Kennedy Airport on Friday, waiting for his mother and father to arrive from Brazil. It would be the first time they had seen one another in three years.

Despite his fears that the omicron wave would cancel their trip, his parents had just landed and were making their way through customs.

“Everybody is tired of this pandemic and being apart from family, from friends,” said Santos, 37, a carpenter. “For me, waiting for three years to see my family, this is a great time.”

“It’s the holidays,” he added, craning his neck to peer down the arrivals hall. “It’s Christmas tomorrow.”

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