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Omicron Brings New Round of Foreboding for British Businesses

Jacob Scott

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LONDON — On Thursday morning, a group of 50 called to cancel their holiday party booked for that evening at Luc’s Brasserie, a French restaurant in the financial district of Britain’s capital. That same morning, a group of 21 canceled their party too, also for Thursday night.

The previous night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that stricter Covid measures were coming, and the impact was immediate for Darrin Jacobs, the owner of Luc’s. There had been a “multitude of cancellations,” he said.

But thanks to a waiting list of reservations, he said, the restaurant was still fully booked until Christmas. And many of the canceled bookings had optimistically rescheduled their celebrations for early next year.

“We won’t lose the business, we’ll just move the business on,” Mr. Jacobs said. But “it’s not easy because we’ve already bought food and moved staff around,” he said.

For months, businesses across Britain have been desperately trying to maneuver around supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and rising costs as they emerged from various stages of lockdown.

Offices reopened, which filled up commuter buses and trains; restaurants and pubs advertised to host holiday parties; and lines grew longer at city center coffee shops.

Now, the emergence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant has unexpectedly dealt those efforts a blow. The government has revived coronavirus restrictions that are likely to weigh on hospitality and travel businesses during the critical holiday season and put a dent in the economy.

“I don’t know where this is going to go next week,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I think this is a tip of the iceberg-type scenario and it may get a lot worse next week and, if that’s the case, we’ll really have to scale it back.”

For now, he’s still cautiously optimistic. But his business relies on people who work in nearby offices and walk to his restaurant in Leadenhall Market, especially several insurance companies. On Thursday, Mr. Jacobs heard that two large companies were closing their offices again.

In England beginning Friday, face masks will be required in most indoor public places including cinemas and theaters. Starting Monday, people who can work from home should. And starting in the middle of next week, passes showing vaccination or a recent negative Covid test will be required for large events and nightclubs, Mr. Johnson announced this week. The rules will be voted on in Parliament next week. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set their own measures, which are slightly stricter.

“Unless you go to a full or partial lockdown, the effect of the measures themselves will be rather small,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, the deputy director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London. “What will be hurting the economy is individuals’ responses.” People are likely to take more precautions to protect themselves from the virus, especially by socializing less.

While the rules are relatively light, for some businesses this will be an unwelcome retreat.

Before the Omicron variant was discovered, the British economy was losing some momentum while prices were rising rapidly, putting inflation at its highest level in nearly a decade. Gross domestic product grew 1.3 percent in the third quarter, down from 5.5 percent in the previous three months. And that growth was driven by spending on services, especially in hotels, restaurants and entertainment as the last of the major pandemic restrictions were lifted in the summer.

Updated  Dec. 9, 2021, 7:25 p.m. ET

Now, there are early indications that restaurant reservations are declining and Christmas parties are being canceled.

Restaurants, cafes and shops primarily serving office workers were contending with the lost trade from hybrid working but had at least seen a notable return of workers. Some 70 percent of British workers said they had traveled to work at least some days each week in early December, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from about 50 percent earlier in the year, when the country was under a strict lockdown.

Sales at Pret A Manger, the coffee and sandwich chain whose shops tend to be clustered around office hubs and transport locations, only returned to prepandemic levels about two weeks ago. Now those sales are starting to slip again.

“Christmas has been canceled for many City shops, restaurants, pubs and other businesses that rely on footfall from workers in nearby offices,” Catherine McGuinness, the policy chairwoman of the City of London Corporation, which governs the capital’s financial district, said in a statement.

Her organization will encourage workers and businesses to follow the new rules but said the government needed to lay out a road map for lifting the restrictions again in the new year, Ms. McGuinness said.

The new measures will also complicate the next steps for the Bank of England. Policymakers at the central bank had been preparing to raise interest rates in response to inflation, provided unemployment remained low. Some analysts believed an increase could come as soon as next week. But the potential for Omicron to further slow the economy makes it harder to justify tightening monetary policy.

The extra uncertainty could dampen productivity and employment growth, according to Mr. Mortimer-Lee. It’s likely to make companies more cautious about hiring and investment, especially businesses that rely on face-to-face interactions, like restaurants. Also, high case numbers will keep children out of schools and parents away from their jobs.

“It’s those millions of individual decisions, rather than Boris Johnson’s decision, that’s going to affect the economy,” said Mr. Mortimer-Lee. “And none of it’s going to be good.”

Even before the latest measures, hotels were seeing about a fifth of their corporate bookings canceled, according to UKHospitality, an industry lobby group, after the government required travelers into Britain to take a Covid test within two days of arriving, and isolate until receiving the results. Christmas bookings weren’t as strong as they traditionally are for hospitality businesses in a quarter that usually brings in about 40 percent of the industry’s annual revenue.

And so, the industry is asking for relief from business rates (a type of tax on commercial properties), more grants, rent protection and an extension of the reductions on VAT, a sales tax. “Anything less would prove catastrophic,” Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said in a statement.

The latest measures have been particularly disappointing for nightclubs, one of the last businesses allowed to reopen earlier this year. The Night Time Industries Association said Covid passes have been damaging to their industry in the parts of Britain where they were already in place.

Michael Kill, the chief executive of the lobbying group, said businesses were experiencing a “honeymoon period” since reopening in the summer and were trying to rebuild cash reserves before the quieter months at the start of the year.

“We’re now seeing some concern around cancellations and ticket purchases hesitancy,” Mr. Kill said. “These sorts of things that are leaving people in a vulnerable position, because many of them stocked up and purchased and staffed for a busy Christmas period.”

The group accused the government of enacting the changes to draw attention away from public fury over accusations that the prime minister’s staff broke lockdown rules by holding an office party last Christmas.

“It feels that nightclubs and bars have been thrown under the bus by the prime minister for him to save his own skin,” Mr. Kill said in a statement on Wednesday.

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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