Axios What's Next

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As recently as last week, we were talking about how Thanksgiving travel was almost back to the pre-pandemic normal. Enter Omicron.

  • Joann Muller takes us through how the new variant is changing everything.
  • Oh, and keep sending us photos of "what's next" in your world. Email: [email protected].

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,204 words ... 4½ minutes.

1 big thing: Travel bans upend holiday plans

Illustration of a plane as a small ornament hanging from a tree
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Just when it seemed safe to travel overseas again, along comes Omicron, Joann writes.

Why it matters: The emergence of the new coronavirus variant couldn't come at a worse time, just weeks before millions of people are expected to travel for the holidays to reunite with loved ones they've missed during the pandemic.

  • Absent detailed information, many countries are responding by slamming shut their borders in the hopes of keeping out the virus' latest strain.
  • Even if they're not traveling to countries where Omicron has been detected so far, travelers have to worry whether their destination could be next — and whether they'll be able to return home easily.

What's happening: Many airlines, travel agencies and tour operators are being inundated with calls from worried travelers, according to Paul Charles, founder of a U.K.-based global travel consultancy, The PC Agency.

  • "They're receiving a torrent of inquiries: Can I rebook? Can I get a refund? What do you think is going to happen?" he tells Axios.
  • "That’s what happens when you create uncertainty. You create a loss of confidence and consumers hunker down."
  • "Christmas bookings will obviously be weaker than we had expected prior to the Omicron variant," Alex Irving, an analyst at Bernstein in London, told Time. "As you add barriers to travel such as the PCR tests and isolation requirements, all that does is changes the incentives."

Even domestic travelers in the U.S. are on edge for the holiday season, as cities like New York reinstate mask advisories.

  • Many say they'll pay extra for fully refundable tickets and trip insurance, just in case, or will drive to their destination instead.

Driving the news: At least 44 countries have imposed travel restrictions from several African countries following the discovery of the new variant.

  • Japan and Israel have gone even further, banning all foreign nationals from entering their countries.
  • President Biden told reporters Monday he doesn't expect further travel restrictions "at this point" after announcing bans on visitors from South Africa and seven other countries last Friday.

It's probably too late anyway. Confirmed cases have already appeared in a growing number of countries, including Canada.

What to watch: Don't cancel your trips just yet, advises Charles of The PC Agency.

  • The newly enacted restrictions could be short-lived if scientists quickly determine that existing vaccines are also effective against Omicron.

Read the full story

2. Retail's IOU boom

Black Friday shoppers in Skokie, Ill. Photo: Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty Images

Here's a staggering stat: Americans' use of "buy now, pay later" options increased 438% between November 2019 and November 2021, according to an Adobe analysis reported by Retail Dive.

Why it matters: This is one of the biggest new trends in shopping right now. People are getting more and more comfortable with apps like Afterpay, Klarna and Affirm that facilitate "buy now, pay later," and let customers spread out the cost of purchases over a long period of time without a credit card, Erica Pandey writes.

  • Consumers may be using these payment plans to deal with higher price tags due to inflation, notes Retail Dive.
  • It's also simpler to just select the "buy now, pay later" option at checkout than to apply for a credit card. These companies often don't run rigorous credit checks before letting people use their services.

But, but, but: There are downsides to using these kinds of apps, such as buying stuff you can't afford.

  • Two-thirds of U.S. users of "buy now, pay later" apps said they spent more money than they would have otherwise while using them, per a Lending Tree survey.
  • On top of that, the companies that offer this service don't usually report users' timely payments to the credit bureaus, so you can't really build credit this way, CBS reports.

The bottom line: "Buy now, pay later" is giving a lot of shoppers more choices and peace of mind this holiday season, but that comes with caveats.

3. Charted: The pandemic's unequal impact

Data: Morning Consult/Axios; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The pandemic was bound to hit the most economically vulnerable among us the hardest. New polling data from Morning Consult, out this week, shows the degree to which those difficulties were more concentrated among people of color, Axios' Kate Marino writes.

  • Catch up quick: The Morning Consult/Axios Inequality Index has tracked the economic experience of adults in three wage groups since May 2020. We began publishing the findings in May of this year, and six months in, we’re slicing the data a little differently — and looking at inequality among ethnicities.

Why it matters: This look-back illuminates the unequal effects of the pandemic on the American population — as well as how important the government's policy responses have been in blunting the impact.

How it works: The index measures whether economic inequality is rising or declining — as opposed to providing a snapshot of the distribution of income or wealth. A higher reading means more inequality.

  • It does so by tracking sentiment in four categories: whether or not respondents expect a reduction in income, whether they expect to lose their job, whether they can cover basic expenses for a month with their savings, and overall consumer confidence.

"As captured by the index, minority groups are generally more likely than white adults to experience pay losses, harbor fears of pay losses and lack savings to cover basic expenses," Morning Consult economic analyst Jesse Wheeler tells Axios.

  • For example, 17% of Black and 24% of Hispanic Americans on average over the last 12 months feared a loss of income, compared to 15% of white adults.

Dive into the data

4. Trouble at ghost kitchens

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The growing popularity of food delivery has given rise to startups that open "ghost kitchens" — kitchens in warehouses or trailers that prepare food solely for delivery and have no option to dine in.

  • But they can come with a whole host of problems, Erica writes.

The big picture: The concept of "ghost kitchens" has been dubbed the next big thing in the future of services, with high profile backers like Uber founder Travis Kalanick. But these kitchens can be hard to run or unsafe.

The Wall Street Journal's Eliot Brown looked into Reef Global, a ghost kitchen company that has been dealing with a variety of issues.

  • They include three big fires, one of which seriously injured a cook to the point where she can no longer work.
  • Reef has also been dealing with problems connecting to local utilities, shutdowns due to regulatory violations, and higher-that-expected operational costs for such necessities as generators and water delivery, Brown heard from former executives and managers.

What to watch: Ghost kitchen companies still have obstacles to overcome before they become the cash cows Silicon Valley venture capitalists are betting they will be.

5. 1 🎄 thing: The mall Santas are back

Santa Claus at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J. Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

COVID killed the job of mall Santas when the idea of putting your kid on a stranger's lap during a pandemic seemed horrifying.

  • This year, they're back, Erica writes.

By the numbers: There are currently 1,275 job openings for mall Santa Clauses, Hire Santa founder Mitch Allen told Retail Brew. His company connects professional Santas with gigs at malls and events.

The bottom line: Retail plays a big part in spreading cheer around the holidays.

  • I was walking through a couple of shopping centers in downtown Chicago this past weekend, and it was a delight to see the lights, the huge Christmas trees and, yes, the mall Santas once again.

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