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Would-be revelers seek to salvage Christmas from pandemic’s tightening grasp

Families are downsizing their Christmas gatherings and making other unhappy adjustments as COVID-19 cases mount.

Joan Jones (from left to right), Carla Lowe and Kasima Bond go out in seasonal costumes as a Christmas Eve tradition. This year, the resurgent pandemic is weighing on their mood.
Joan Jones (from left to right), Carla Lowe and Kasima Bond go out in seasonal costumes as a Christmas Eve tradition. This year, the resurgent pandemic is weighing on their mood.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Colorful ornaments and strings of lights decorated Dilworth Park beside City Hall early Friday afternoon, as carols blared from speakers at the nearby ice rink. But on this Christmas Eve, Kasima Bond was having trouble feeling the holiday cheer.

“It’s a struggle to get into the spirit,” said Bond, who works at Temple University Hospital and lives in the Northeast, standing among the holiday trinket booths at the annual Christmas Village.

With coronavirus cases mounting on the back of the infectious new omicron variant, Bond and countless others are struggling to salvage what they can of the holidays, scrounging for rapid tests to more safely attend downsized family gatherings — when those gatherings are even being held at all.

The city posted an average of 746 new cases of COVID-19 a day in the two weeks ended Thursday, and a test positivity rate of 8.4%. The rate of new cases represents a sharp increase in recent weeks. April was the last time it reached this high.

Visits to far-flung family members have been scuppered, with thousands of flights canceled globally for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, according to the website Flightaware, with at least some of the cancellations attributed to the pandemic.

United Airlines, which operates flights out of Philadelphia International Airport, said in a statement Thursday that it was canceling 120 Christmas Eve flights because omicron has had “a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.”

But even some people staying local watched as their holiday plans were wrecked by COVID’s resurgence.

Marc Stachowski, a software engineer in Paoli, said he and his wife had decided weeks ago to skip his family’s yearly gathering at his mother’s Mount Airy home for the second year in a row because of the increasing numbers of infections.

This week, the gathering was called off entirely, he said, after his 7-year-old niece tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We were feeling pretty optimistic about it before omicron started making its way through everything,” he said.

Mike and Kristin Ways had looked forward to a big Christmas Eve dinner with extended family at their home in Magnolia, Camden County. Then their 17-year-old daughter, Dayna, tested positive for the virus last week.

Although Dayna is out of quarantine, they felt safer keeping things small, limiting the celebration to themselves and their two older boys, who are home from college.

“We’re just going to stay home with our kids and enjoy it,” said Kristin Ways.

Said her husband, Mike, with a laugh: “We’re going to drink until we fall over.”

Annette Taylor, of East Mount Airy, said she had intended to join a family Christmas gathering at her brother’s home in Delaware, but those plans were complicated by her sister-in-law’s last-minute demand that she first get tested for the virus.

Now she was scrambling to get her hands on a home-testing kit, an increasingly rare commodity. The Philadelphia Health Department already canceled a Thursday giveaway of the rapid tests at an East Germantown recreation center after running out of kits.

If Taylor can’t find a swab?

“I’m going, but I’m going to keep my mask on,” she said.

Kasima Bond, the Temple Hospital worker from the Northeast, was taking in Dilworth Plaza on Christmas Eve with two friends, all in matching fuzzy reindeer costumes.

As part of a years-long tradition, the three women dress up the day before Christmas — ugly sweaters, Santa suits, and the like — and find someplace fun to soak up the holiday spirit, before ending the afternoon with cocktails.

Their Christmas Eve lark has been followed most years by big family get-togethers, but not this time. Joan Jones, who wore antlered glasses to go with her reindeer suit, said that’s been a letdown.

“There’s this feeling I get every year,” she said. “I don’t have this feeling now, but I’m trying to get it back.”