New York: As the Omicron variant drives coronavirus infection rates to their highest levels of the pandemic in many parts of the world, major cities have scaled down or cancelled New Year’s Eve events for a second consecutive year.
Only months ago, expanding COVID vaccinations and loosening travel rules had promised a return of raucous New Year gatherings amid hopes that the pandemic might finally be waning. But the emergence of Omicron - the highly transmissible variant that is now dominant in the United States and fuelling record surges in many nations - has prompted governments to reinstate travel restrictions, mask mandates and bans on large gatherings.
Even as early studies suggest that Omicron produces less severe illness, experts warn that the staggering caseload could still overwhelm health systems. A number of Dec. 31 events have been cancelled in countries where caseloads are rising swiftly, including in Italy, where the 14-day average of new cases is up 128 per cent, and in France, where cases are up 48 per cent, according to the Our World in Data Project at the University of Oxford.
In the United States, where daily cases have doubled over the past two weeks, some events have been cancelled, but the annual celebration in Times Square in New York will go on, with attendance capped at 15,000.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, recommended Monday that people “stay away” from large New Year’s Eve parties, especially when it is not clear who has been vaccinated. Speaking on CNN, Fauci said, “There will be other years to do that, but not this year.”
As another 12 months living with the pandemic draws to a close, here’s a look at how Omicron has forced some cities to change their plans for December 31:
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a downsizing of the celebration in Times Square to at most 15,000 guests, nearly a quarter of the usual amount, who will be allowed in at 3pm at the earliest. Attendees will be required to wear masks and show proof of full vaccination. Fox cancelled its “New Year’s Eve Toast & Roast 2022” live broadcast from Times Square. The network said in a statement that “the recent velocity of the spread of Omicron cases has made it impossible to produce a live special in Times Square that meets our standards.”
Several Los Angeles County holiday events have been cancelled, including the New Year’s countdown in Grand Park, which will now be streamed.
For the second year in a row, there will be no crowds allowed at the Space Needle’s fireworks show. People can watch on a livestream instead.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, announced last week that the New Year’s Eve event in Trafalgar Square was cancelled, saying, “The safety of Londoners must come first.”
According to the broadcaster France24, Paris has cancelled its celebration, which was to include fireworks over the Champs Elysees. Prime Minister Jean Castex also announced that large public parties would be banned on New Year’s Eve.
Rome and Venice
Celebrations have been scrapped in several Italian cities, including Rome and Venice. Outdoor events have been banned and nightclubs will be closed for the month of January.
Berlin’s annual New Year’s Eve party at the Brandenburg Gate will go on, but without any audience members. The performances will be live on television. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also announced that gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people starting Tuesday.
Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo typically attracts tens of thousands of people for one of the biggest New Year celebrations in the world. This year, like last year, the revelry has been called off. Public drinking has been banned in Shibuya on December 31 and January 1.
The Delhi Disaster Management Authority has banned all social, political and cultural gatherings, including Christmas and New Year celebrations, according to The Economic Times newspaper. Restaurants and bars are allowed to operate only at half capacity.
Cape Town is still allowing New Year’s Eve gatherings, but several restrictions are in place. There is a curfew from 12-4am, masks are required in public areas and nightclubs are closed.
Authorities banned New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout the country, including in Casablanca, the most populous city. Restaurants will close 30 minutes before midnight, and there will be a curfew from midnight to 6am
The national police force Monday announced a ban on New Year’s Eve fireworks across the country, including in Kampala, the capital. Nighttime religious services will also be prohibited.