Revelers gather for the New Year's celebration December 31, 2018 in Times Square in New York. Image Credit: AFP

New York: As the clock runs out on 2021, New York City will ring in the new year with festivities meant to signal its post-pandemic rebirth: Once again, an untold number of hardy souls will descend on Times Square, braving the cold, the crowds and the police cordons to watch the ball drop at midnight on New Year's Eve.

After a scaled-down celebration last year, the famously frigid event will return at "full strength," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. It will be de Blasio's final act running New York City, after eight years in office, and serve as a prelude to his possible bid for governor next year.

"We want to welcome all those hundreds of thousands of folks, but everyone needs to be vaccinated," de Blasio said. "Join the crowd, join the joy, join a historic moment as New York City provides further evidence to the world that we are 100 per cent back."

The New Year's celebration will come four months after lightning cut short a star-studded "homecoming concert" that was also designed to signify the city's comeback. Proof of vaccination was also required to attend that event, which drew thousands to Central Park.

The New Year's festivities will present a logistical, and perhaps philosophical, puzzle for the city's police officers, who fought the mayor's vaccination mandate for public servants. Police will have to not only contend with crowd control but also confirm that people are vaccinated.

"We defer to the Police Department on operational issues like this, unless it impacts the guy and gal on the street," said John Nuthall, a spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city's police officers.

In Times Square, news that the ball drop would be open to the public again was met with enthusiasm, at least among tourists. For Johnnica Watson, 47, who was visiting from Alabama, watching the event on television wouldn't be enough: When she heard the news Tuesday morning, she immediately decided to book another trip to the city.

"I'm very excited for the New York people who live here, but even more for us who don't live here," Watson said. "Out in Alabama, we don't have a drop."

Anyone who is unable to be inoculated because of a disability will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of the event. Children younger than 5, who are not yet eligible for vaccines, will have to be accompanied by a vaccinated adult. Masks will be required for anyone who is not vaccinated, said Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance.

Asked at a news conference why vaccination would be mandatory to attend the ball drop when it is not required for many other outdoor activities in New York, de Blasio said a crowded, hourslong event drawing people from around the country and the world required greater precaution.

"When you're outdoors with a few hundred thousand people packed close together for hours on end, it's a different reality," de Blasio said. "You're talking about a lot of people really close for long periods of time. It makes sense to protect everyone."

The announcement comes as de Blasio is preparing for his successor, Eric Adams, to take over as the next mayor of New York City, and the ball drop will coincide with de Blasio's final day in office. That will leave any fallout from the event in the hands of Adams, who will be inaugurated Jan. 1, 2022. A spokesman for Adams did not respond to a request for comment.

Several public health experts have cautioned that the constantly changing nature of the coronavirus makes it difficult to predict where the city might be in terms of cases by the end of the year. Of course, many who flock to watch the ball drop aren't actually from New York at all.

As of Tuesday, 74.6 per cent of New Yorkers had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 68.2% were fully vaccinated. The number of coronavirus cases in the city has increased recently and remains very high, but hospitalization rates have stayed low.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said de Blasio's plans for New Year's Eve seemed "very reasonable."

"Vaccines make outdoor events, which are already pretty low risk, exceedingly low risk," Jha said.

He pointed to the Lollapalooza music festival over the summer in Chicago as evidence.

"It was an incredibly crowded gathering, and everyone in that context was required to be vaccinated or have one negative test," Jha said. "We have evidence that there was little to no spread."

But Jha did caution de Blasio to give himself an escape clause should cases increase sharply in the days before New Year's Eve, requiring the return of the celebration to be pushed to next year.

Some experts pointed out that the risk might not be contained within Times Square. People will also have to consider what happens before and after the ball drop, with people going in and out of nearby bars and restaurants to eat, warm up and use the restroom. But New York City, unlike many locales, requires those eating and drinking indoors to provide proof of vaccination.

Some major restrictions against international travellers were recently eased by the United States, so the ball drop is likely to attract revelers from around the world, drawing together people from areas of both lower and higher rates of the virus.

Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology for the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, said that although the vaccination requirement meant the risk of transmission at the event would be greatly reduced, those who travel from outside the city to attend the ball drop should consider the possibility of bringing the virus back to their hometowns.

"There will be people coming from places that don't have much COVID going on right now," Nash said. "We need to be thinking about seeding, outbreaks and spread, not just in our own backyards but everywhere."

Given the safety guidelines, attending the ball drop would not be an irrational choice, Nash said. But all attendees will have to weigh their individual comfort levels and the amount of risk they may pose to others, he said, advising revelers to wear a mask the entire time.

The news prompted a range of reactions from New Yorkers in Times Square on Tuesday. Dustin Etheridge, 38, a journalist from Brooklyn, said that although he wouldn't be coming out to watch the ball drop, the announcement signified a welcome return to normalcy.

"I think it's good for the city," said Etheridge, who was snacking on Pringles at a red table with his 5-year-old son, Noah. "I think it's really good for the local economy to have that influx of people that are coming in."

But Javier Marte, 26, of the Bronx said he wasn't disappointed that the event didn't happen last year, and that he wasn't planning to attend this year, adding that many New Yorkers didn't care about it.

"It is what it is," said Marte, who was passing through Times Square after finishing a shift at a coronavirus testing site. "It's cool, though. I respect everybody that comes out and celebrates it."

New Year's Eve typically brings a boost in business to Times Square, said Harris of the Times Square Alliance, adding that he hoped the holidays would bring a much-needed jolt to a district that has seen many restaurants and hotels shuttered during the pandemic. Foot traffic, hotel bookings and restaurant reservations have been increasing as international travel restrictions have eased, he said.

"It's one of the busiest times in the Times Square area," Harris said. "People are tired of dreaming and eager to do, and they are eager to do it in Times Square."

Tim Dolan, who owns Broadway Up Close, which offers tours of the theater district, said his office building faced the famous crystal ball. He said he hoped it would never again be necessary to scale back the New Year's Eve celebration.

"To be in a building that stares up to the building where the ball drops all day, it makes us very happy to see that it'll come back," Dolan said. "It will still be freezing, I'm sure, but we love traditions and can't wait for this one to return."

Other major cities around the world have called off their New Year's Eve celebrations. In October, London's mayor said that the city's end-of-year fireworks display would be canceled and replaced with a different kind of celebration, while Amsterdam this week canceled its celebrations in response to a surge in coronavirus cases.

Munich has also canceled its celebrated Christmas market. "The dramatic situation in our hospitals and the exponentially increasing infection figures leave me no other choice," the city's mayor, Dieter Reiter, told reporters Tuesday.

Jha said that he believed it made sense for New York City to move forward.

"We have to get back to doing things that are really meaningful," Jha said. "New Year's Eve in Times Square is kind of an iconic American celebration, and I think we're at the point in the pandemic where we can do it safely."