Saturday, January 29, 2022

South Africans cling to Christmas cheer as Omicron spreads

Many had feared a repeat of last year's holiday shutdown after South Africa became one of the first countries to identify the new fast-spreading Omicron variant.

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Caden Khayo stands outside a bar on Cape Town’s Long Street, desperate to make the most of this Christmas after months of restrictions and worries about Covid-19.

Many had feared a repeat of last year’s holiday shutdown after South Africa became one of the first countries to identify the new fast-spreading Omicron variant.

But President Cyril Ramaphosa has stopped short of ordering any new curbs this time around. He has urged people to be careful and has let bars keep the beer flowing, for now.

“It’s Christmas, we have to be merry you know,” Khayo, 30, says as drinkers move from club to club around him.

“Last year we were home. We were like closed down and all. But this time, we’re out here, we’re having fun. That’s a good thing.”

Hundreds have been heading out to the bars and clubs and bohemian hangouts along the 3km-long thoroughfare.

In Johannesburg, thousands more have turned out to enjoy the light displays that have filled the upmarket Melrose Arch shopping precinct with flashing reindeer, glittering giant teddy bears and glowing Christmas trees.

A pre-existing midnight curfew is still in place. Bar owners are keeping cautious, watching out for more restrictions, or a return to June’s alcohol ban.

But for now many are taking heart from vaccination programmes and from data suggesting that those infected with Omicron are much less likely to end up in hospital than those with the Delta strain.

In Long Street, the lunch trade in particular is holding up well, Prince Kabare, the general manager at the bright yellow Beerhouse bar, says.

“This is like 30 to 40% better than we were last year so it’s a good sign,” he adds. “Now we’re able to get some of the staff back and get moving.”

Outside, after dark, masked police keep the traffic flowing through the packed streets.

“Everyone’s out here partying. I mean look at this place,” tourist Jason Smuts says. “It’s good to see that everyone’s got their masks on, and I got the vax, hope everyone got the vax. It’s gonna be good, you know.”

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