By Betsy Klein, CNN
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden descended on the island of Nantucket this week looking to preserve the sense of normalcy that the nation was so looking forward to over this holiday season.
The President and first lady brought a brood of children, grandchildren and their significant others to their island Thanksgiving getaway — along with the Secret Service apparatus, small flock of staff and gaggle of reporters that travels with the president — looking to send a signal to the rest of the country that it was time to return to traditions that had been skipped in 2020.
They went through their Thanksgiving routine: They had their feast with family on Thursday before walking through Nantucket on Friday, dining at a local restaurant and shopping at stores they have visited for decades before attending the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. The President tweeted in support of small businesses and restaurants Friday, making good on his pledge to shop small during that afternoon stroll.
But as has happened so often in the past year and a half, the pandemic is never far away for the President, as he — like other Americans — woke up to new worries over a concerning variant of the coronavirus spreading abroad.
As the Bidens smiled through their Thanksgiving traditions, the harsh reality of Covid-19’s unpredictability interrupted the celebrations on Black Friday. Reports of the new Omicron variant of the virus — B.1.1.529, discovered in South Africa — prompted fresh concerns among scientists and the Biden administration. As South African officials briefed the World Health Organization on Friday, a new wave of travel restrictions were imposed abroad as countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan moved unusually quickly to set new travel bans for South Africa and other countries in the region.
Stock markets in the US and abroad fell sharply Friday on the news, with the Dow Jones industrial Average logging its worst day since October 2020 as investors reacted to the new uncertainty of the virus’s trajectory. On Friday afternoon, the President announced new travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other African nations — a move that he said was meant to be “cautious” over a new “big concern.”
The stock slide, reports of cases of the new variant showing up in additional nations around the world and travel restrictions on affected nations brought back echoes of the pandemic’s early days rather than the optimistic view the administration has sought to project in the last several weeks. The news from southern Africa turned Biden’s annual trek to Nantucket from a signal of better days to come into a message that the nation’s new normal can be preserved — at least for now.
Biden and his team view effectively tackling the pandemic as the only way for the economy to improve and for the President to recover his political fortunes. Questions are now circulating about how the administration will handle the new variant and its economic havoc, as federal health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci warn that there is much to learn about how it spreads and how vaccines can fight it.
The continued economic fallout from the pandemic — still far from over this holiday week — was clear both on Wall Street and in the seaside town where the Bidens broke bread.
Conversations with local business owners and workers across Nantucket underlined the growing economic disparities between the summer season residents and many of the islanders who live here year-round. That gap has been exacerbated by the pandemic and resulting inflation, supply chain issues, labor shortages and a lack of affordable housing.
Richard Vargas, a manager at Murray’s Beverage Store, on the town’s main street, told CNN that the labor shortages mean he is seeing businesses having trouble “being able to gain enough people out here for work, people wanting to go to work, and getting the supplies to be able to provide a service for everybody around the island.”
“There are a lot of hardworking people here,” he said — many of whom, he explained, hold at least two jobs to pay rising housing rental costs and to buy food.
Vargas, who holds a second job at FedEx, said a scarcity of J-1 visas for people coming to the US seasonally to work has also made it hard to recruit workers.
“We know there’s a lot of people that wanted to come back this year that couldn’t because they couldn’t get a visa. It’s just absolute craziness — like, all the stores along here, any of the businesses over here, they say the same thing: They could not get enough help,” Vargas said.
Biden is staying at the home of billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein, a sprawling waterfront compound. But on an island often described as “elite,” “tony” or “posh,” the economic concerns affecting the nation are acutely felt among those who keep the place running — the landscapers, the servers, the cooks, the hotel housekeepers, the shop employees.
Despite continued prosperity for the very rich, there is a “growing year-round population living at or below the median income level” and a “severe shortage of year-round affordable rental housing,” according to the Nantucket Food, Fuel, Rental Assistance program.
Food insecurity is on the rise, with the Greater Boston Food Bank identifying Nantucket County as one of four counties in Massachusetts that have “seen their projected food insecurity rates increase by over 70.0%” in the past year, per the town’s Nantucket Cottage Hospital.
And the labor shortage extends to teachers, police officers and first responders, with the Nantucket Current reporting in August that a staff exodus from the Nantucket Department of Public Works had “crippled” its workforce.
Concerns about the gap between rich and poor on the island were echoed by local business owners at the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce’s “Business After Hours” happy hour Wednesday evening, with one attendee describing “the different Nantucket economies” of the rich and privileged and of those supporting their lifestyles.
It’s no secret that presidential vacations historically do not reflect the experiences of ordinary Americans, from President Donald Trump’s frequent Mar-a-Lago escapes in Palm Beach, Florida, to President Barack Obama’s summer vacation in nearby Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve often been aware of the political dangers in selecting tony locations — in 1995, President Bill Clinton’s political adviser conducted a poll to determine a voter-approved vacation spot for the Clintons, settling on Grand Teton National Park.
But for the Bidens, the trip this year is meant to be a symbol to the country that Americans can enjoy the holiday traditions that the coronavirus kept them from experiencing last year. The Bidens have been spending Thanksgiving on Nantucket for 46 years. It was the spot the President spent his first Thanksgiving with Jill Biden, and the place where his late son, Beau, and son Hunter encouraged him to run for president in 2016.
“This year, the blessings of Thanksgiving are especially meaningful,” the President said in a video message released Thursday.
The first lady added, “After being apart last year, we have a new appreciation for those little moments we can’t plan or replicate.”
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