The Omicron coronavirus variant dampened new year festivities around much of the world with Paris cancelling its fireworks show, London relegating its to television and New York City scaling down its famous ball drop celebration in Times Square.
The illuminated ball made of Waterford crystal panels slid down its pole at midnight in Times Square, but only 15,000 people were allowed into the official viewing area.
New Year’s Eve, which used to be celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, felt instead like a case of deja vu, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant again filling hospitals, especially across Europe and the United States.
A year ago, the newly available vaccine offered hope that the COVID-19 pandemic may be under control by the start of 2022. Instead, the sudden arrival of Omicron has brought a surge in coronavirus cases across the globe.
“I would be lying if I said I’m not concerned,” said Sue Park, a Columbia University student who was one of the 15,000 allowed to watch in person. “Definitely, I think it’s worth it to come and celebrate.”
US President Joe Biden noted the losses and uncertainty caused by the pandemic but said: “We’re persevering. We’re recovering.
“Back to work. Back to school. Back to joy,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter. “That’s how we made it through this year. And how we’ll embrace the next. Together.”
Midnight passed in Paris without a planned fireworks display or DJ sets, as city officials cancelled events planned on the Champs-Elysees following the advice of a scientific panel that declared mass gatherings would be too risky.
In Berlin, police urged people not to gather near the Brandenburg Gate, where a concert was staged without a live audience.
In the Netherlands, where outside groupings of more than four people are banned, police dispersed several thousand people who had defiantly gathered at Amsterdam’s central Dam Square, ANP news agency reported.
But in London, where a fireworks display and light show was cancelled in October, officials announced on Friday the spectacle would come to life on the television screen, as Big Ben rang in the New Year for the first time since 2017 following its restoration.
BBC images of the fireworks showed very light vehicle traffic and virtually no in-person spectators.
Cape Town in South Africa – where the Omicron variant was first reported – abruptly lifted a curfew just in time for the New Year.
“I’m just hoping that Cape Town goes back to the old Cape Town that we all knew about,” said Michael Mchede, manager of a Hard Rock Cafe by the white sands of Camps Bay Beach, who was thrilled to get the place ready to host an unexpected bash.
Hours earlier, the Australian city of Sydney also feted the new year with something like full swagger, as spectacular fireworks glittered in the harbour above the Opera House.
People in Madrid queued for hours to get into the main Puerta del Sol square where celebrations went ahead with multiple security checkpoints, mandatory masks and capacity at 60 percent of normal levels. Only 7,000 people were allowed into the square, a venue traditionally hosting some 20,000 revellers.
A lavish firework display lit up the festivities, which Spaniards mark by stuffing 12 grapes into their mouths to accompany each chime of the clock striking midnight.
In Asia, events were scaled back or cancelled outright, such as with the traditional fireworks over the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
In South Korea, a traditional midnight bell-ringing ceremony was cancelled for the second year, while festivities were banned in Tokyo’s glittering Shibuya entertainment district, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took to YouTube to urge people to wear masks and limit numbers at parties.
China, where the coronavirus was reported in late 2019, was on high alert, with the city of Xi’an under lockdown and new year events in other cities cancelled.
More than 288 million people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide since late 2019 and more than five million have died, according to data published by Johns Hopkins University.