Live Updates: Covid Wave Dampens New Year Observances Worldwide

Countries rattled by Omicron mark the end of 2021 with subdued celebrations, or none at all. In Australia, Sydney’s annual fireworks show went on, but other cities canceled festivities.

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:57 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:57 a.m. ET
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An empty Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2020 foreshadowed a year of Covid ups and downs in 2021.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Life was supposed to return to normal this year. Instead, 2021 turned into a kind of purgatory. But there is good reason to hope 2022 will be better.

As this year comes to a close, we want to look back on the arc of the pandemic — and look ahead to the new year that starts Saturday.

This past year began with the ramping up of a mass vaccination campaign, which many people celebrated by taking post-shot selfies of their bandaged arms. By February, new Covid-19 cases were plummeting, and by spring, the virus seemed as if it might be in permanent retreat. On June 2, President Biden gave a speech looking ahead to “a summer of freedom, a summer of joy.”

But then came a turning point of 2021: the emergence of the Delta variant.

It began spreading in the U.S. in the late spring and caused many more infections among the vaccinated than earlier versions of the virus. The overwhelming majority of these breakthrough infections were mild, but they did have the potential to cause serious illness in the older and other vulnerable people.

Delta also sparked new outbreaks among the unvaccinated, and tens of thousands of them died. Ultimately, the U.S. death toll from Covid in 2021 — more than 475,000 — exceeded the 2020 toll. The increase is especially tragic, epidemiologists say, because the availability of vaccines had made most of those deaths avoidable.

Altogether, the year ending tonight has often felt disappointing and grim.

In addition to the direct damage from Covid, the disruptions to daily life — intended to slow the spread of the virus — have brought their own costs. Children have fallen behind in school, and for many, isolation has worsened their mental health. Adults are struggling, too; Americans’ blood pressure has risen, and drug overdoses have soared.

Even people who have avoided the worst of the pandemic’s damage often feel fed up. And the latest variant, Omicron, has sent cases soaring again, to their highest levels yet, and raised the prospect that 2022 will be another year of pandemic purgatory.

At this point, it should be clear that there are no Covid guarantees. Perhaps future variants will emerge, even more dangerous than Omicron or Delta. But the most likely scenario is more hopeful, many experts believe. As the New Year arrives, there are reasons to hope that 2022 will become what people expected 2021 to be — the year that Covid switched from being a pandemic to an endemic virus, not so different from the flu.

Emerging evidence suggests that Omicron really is milder than earlier versions of this coronavirus (either because of intrinsic biological reasons or because of higher levels of population immunity). In South Africa and England, as well as New York, San Francisco and other parts of the U.S., hospitalization numbers are lower than doctors feared.

Omicron will still do terrible damage, especially among the millions of middle-aged and older Americans who remain unvaccinated as well as the hundreds of millions of adults worldwide who remain unvaccinated, because of either vaccine skepticism or unavailability. Many hospitals face the risk of being overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

But when the current surge begins receding, it will likely have left a couple of silver linings. Omicron is so contagious that it will have infected a meaningful share of the population, increasing the amount of Covid immunity and helping defang the virus.

As important, the world has more powerful weapons to fight Covid than it did only a few weeks ago: two new post-infection treatments, one from Merck and a more powerful one from Pfizer, that lower the risk of hospitalization and death. With Pfizer’s treatment, the reduction is almost 90 percent, according to early research trials.

All of which suggests that the U.S. could emerge from the Omicron wave significantly closer to the most realistic Covid future — one in which it becomes an endemic disease that is a more normal part of daily life. It will still cause illness and death; a typical flu season kills about 35,000 Americans, most of them older. For the foreseeable future, battling Covid — through vaccination, treatment and research — will remain important.

But endemic disease does not need to dominate life the way a pandemic does. It does not need to cause the sort of social isolation and public health problems that Covid has over the past two years.

If the U.S. reaches that point in 2022 — as looks likely — the next New Year’s Eve will feel a lot more satisfying than this one.

Dec. 31, 2021, 8:20 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 8:20 a.m. ET
Times Square on Thursday. The crowd for the New Year’s Eve celebration will be limited to 15,000 people.Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times

For the second year in a row, the glittering Times Square crystal ball will drop in a New York City chastened by the coronavirus.

Instead of the huge throngs that usually gather at what is in normal times among the busiest tourist destinations in the world, a crowd of just 15,000 people — all of whom must be fully vaccinated and wearing masks — will cheer on this year’s festivities.

Still, even that is more than last year, when only a few hundred people, including dozens of frontline workers, were invited to watch the ball drop in person.

New Yorkers had hoped that coronavirus vaccines, which had only just arrived around this time a year ago, would bring New York fully back to its status as an international beacon of New Year’s Eve cheer. But the Omicron variant, which is spreading quickly in the city among the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, has doused that optimism.

New York State reported 74,000 new cases of the virus on Thursday, about 44,000 of them in New York City. Hospitalizations are also beginning to rise steeply, with some 3,600 people hospitalized in the city, more than triple the number 10 days ago. More than 400 people in the city, most of whom are unvaccinated, are now in intensive care with Covid-19.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will oversee the ball’s descent in his last official act as mayor, has been determined to keep the festivities going in some form. His successor, Eric Adams, has followed his lead, and will be sworn into office in Times Square just after midnight.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” Mr. de Blasio said in an interview on the “Today” show on Thursday. “It’s really important to not give up in the face of this.”

Several TV networks will host live specials from Times Square. Ryan Seacrest will anchor ABC’s “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” and Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen will kick off CNN’s event. NBC will host the night partly from New York and partly from Miami.

Fox canceled its live special in Times Square last week over Covid-19 concerns. And although the musical artists KT Tunstall, Karol G and Journey are still scheduled to perform, the rapper LL Cool J dropped out on Wednesday after saying he had tested positive for the virus.

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:49 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:49 a.m. ET

Damien Cave

in Sydney, Australia

In a New Year’s Eve address, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “This summer you can play your part in keeping Australians safe by going out there and getting your booster shot and ensuring that children aged 5 to 11 go and get their vaccinations as well.” He added: “There’s a lot to do in 2022.”

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:48 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:48 a.m. ET

Damien Cave

in Sydney, Australia

It is almost midnight in Sydney. Crowd sizes have been limited and countless private parties were cancelled, but Sydney forged ahead with its usual New Year’s fireworks display over the harbor. Families and friends gathered by the Sydney shore in smaller numbers than usual. Many Australians stayed home, fearing another super-spreading event at a time when an Omicron outbreak has already pushed daily case numbers to record highs.

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:30 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:30 a.m. ET
A marketplace on Wednesday in New Delhi. About 60 percent of the eligible population in India has received two vaccine doses, and 90 percent has gotten one dose.Credit…Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

India had enjoyed a relative coronavirus lull for months, a welcome reprieve from the devastation of the springtime second wave that left hundreds of thousands dead. But as the New Year approached, a sudden rise in cases dimmed any hopes of celebrations.

Many major cities have imposed early-evening curfews, trying to restrict gatherings going late. Movie halls in New Delhi have been shut once again. Restaurants and bars can fill to only half-capacity and must close early.

In some tourist destinations, however, the party was going ahead largely unchanged. Beaches in Goa were packed with Indian tourists, with hotel occupancy reported as high as 90 percent. But the state government has ordered bars, restaurants and party venues to admit only those carrying a vaccination certificate or proof of a negative P.C.R. test.

The economic blow of the first two waves, Covid fatigue and the country’s nonstop cycle of elections had led India to largely do away with restrictions and open up in recent months. To avoid another wave, the government banked on having all 900 million adults vaccinated by the end of the year. Progress on that goal has been modest — about 60 percent of the eligible population has received two vaccine doses, and 90 percent one dose.

But that strategy has been thrown into question now, with initial studies showing that the vaccines India is using — mainly a locally manufactured version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot — do not protect against infection with the Omicron variant.

With Omicron’s severity still unclear, the country enters 2022 fearing a repeat of the havoc that the Delta variant wrought. Daily case numbers have climbed by almost 40 percent in recent days, with more than 16,700 new cases reported on Thursday, although numbers remain far below earlier peaks.

The health sector’s preparedness is in doubt, not only because of the toll that the pandemic has taken on medical workers, but also because tens of thousands of doctors went on strike for weeks in protest of the slow recruitment of new doctors. The strike was called off on Friday.

Adding to the foreboding sense of d?j? vu is the attitude of the country’s political leaders: Even as they call for vigilance and reintroduce restrictions and nighttime curfews, parties continue to pack thousands of people into election rallies during the day.

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:14 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:14 a.m. ET

Natasha Frost

in Melbourne, Australia

It is already 2022 in New Zealand, and with Omicron not yet spreading in the community, the new year was celebrated with enthusiasm, if not quite as much revelry as in a typical year. Large parties and festivals were canceled or postponed, but New Zealanders gathered in smaller groups in backyards, at beaches and in bars.

Dec. 31, 2021, 7:03 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 7:03 a.m. ET
Paris on Thursday. An outdoor mask mandate began in the capital on Friday, and no end date for it was given.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

A new mandate to wear masks outdoors took effect on Friday in Paris as part of an effort to slow down the spread of the Omicron variant in the French capital, which has become the center of the country’s latest wave of coronavirus infections.

To combat the new wave, the police in Paris announced that people ages 11 and older would be required to wear masks outside and in all public places, with some exceptions allowed for people exercising or riding bikes. No end date for the measure was given.

France dropped its first mandatory outdoor mask policy in June, about a year after it was imposed, in a move that symbolized for many the retreat of the pandemic. About the same time, it lifted curfew measures and reopened bars and restaurants.

Other French cities and regions in recent days have also reimposed mandatory mask-wearing outside, following similar moves by several European countries, including Spain, Greece and Italy.

France has registered two straight days of more than 200,000 new coronavirus cases, its most ever, which the health minister, Olivier V?ran, has compared to a “tsunami.” The spread of Omicron — which studies indicate is more resistant to vaccines, though it may produce less severe illness — has threatened to undermine France’s pandemic social contract, which has made a return to normal life contingent on vaccinations.

In Paris alone, the infection rate has reached “an unprecedented level” of 2,000 per 100,000 people, or about double the national average, according to a statement released by the Paris police on Wednesday.

Even as infections rise again, the French government has been reluctant to take more restrictive measures, like the lockdowns and curfews that turned Paris into a ghost city last year. But it did cancel its New Year’s Eve celebration, which was to include fireworks over the Champs-?lys?es. Large public parties have also been banned.

Yves Buisson, an epidemiologist at the French National Academy of Medicine, told the franceinfo radio station on Thursday that “all precautionary measures are essential” in today’s situation.

“Transmission happens less outside than inside,” he said, “but it’s not nonexistent, especially in areas with high population density.”

Dec. 31, 2021, 6:11 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 6:11 a.m. ET

Jin Yu Young

in Seoul

South Korea’s New Year’s Eve celebrations will be hobbled by even tighter social-distancing measures than last year, including a 9 p.m. curfew for businesses. As the nation sees record-high virus cases, groups are capped at four people, and residents must be fully vaccinated to enter restaurants, cafes and other businesses.

Dec. 31, 2021, 6:00 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 6:00 a.m. ET

Vivian Wang

Hong Kong is hosting its first official New Year’s event in three years after calling off plans in 2019 because of huge protests and last year because of the virus. The city’s strict travel restrictions have basically eliminated local transmission of the virus, so it’s ringing in the New Year with an outdoor concert featuring the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Mirror, a hugely popular boy band. Still, only 3,000 people will be allowed to attend, and the usual fireworks have been scrapped.

Dec. 31, 2021, 5:06 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 5:06 a.m. ET
New Year’s Eve fireworks on Friday night in Sydney.Credit…Dean Lewins/EPA, via Shutterstock

The New Year’s Eve fireworks display in Sydney, Australia, with pyrotechnics fired near the Opera House reflecting off the city’s majestic harbor, is so well loved that officials do it twice — once at 9 p.m., then again at midnight.

Even as coronavirus case numbers soared to a record high of more than 12,000 per day in the state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, there was no serious talk of suspending the festivities.

Instead, officials encouraged caution: masks, proof of vaccination and limits on the number of people who can gather. After a 107-day lockdown this year because of a Delta-variant outbreak, Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, seemed ready to move on and muddle through the year-end surge.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof. Paul Kelly, said that even though cases would continue to rise, evidence showed that the Omicron variant led to less severe consequences than previous strains.

“It is a different virus, very different from previous versions of the virus,” he said on Thursday, citing studies from South Africa and elsewhere.

And yet, despite the government’s pleas for normalcy, businesses catering to the festivities reported widespread cancellations. Cruise companies, restaurants and music festivals have all experienced an exodus both of workers and customers — some because they were sick or were in close contact with someone who was, others because they feared becoming ill.

Other parts of Australia have reported fewer cases but had their own set of unexpected disruptions. The city of Melbourne canceled a planned light show with overhead drones. Perth, the capital of Western Australia, which has been especially strict with lockdowns and closed borders, canceled music festivals for the holiday and banned dancing at nightclubs.

But a horse race scheduled for New Year’s Day will go on as planned.

Dec. 31, 2021, 5:03 a.m. ETDec. 31, 2021, 5:03 a.m. ET
A stage for the New Year’s Eve show in Times Square was ready on Thursday.Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times

As the Omicron variant drives known coronavirus cases to their highest levels of the pandemic in many parts of the world, major cities where caseloads are rising swiftly have scaled down or canceled New Year’s Eve events for a second consecutive year.

The United States on Thursday shattered its record for new daily coronavirus cases for the second day straight.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, recommends having small gatherings with family and friends at homes where people are vaccinated with booster shots, citing a low risk for infection.

Here’s a look at how Omicron has forced some cities to change their plans for Dec. 31:

New York City

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 3 p.m. at the earliest. Attendees will be required to wear masks and show proof of full vaccination.

Los Angeles

Several Los Angeles County holiday events have been canceled, including the New Year’s countdown in Grand Park, which will now be streamed.

Boston

All First Night Boston events have been moved outdoors, and vaccinations, booster shots and rapid tests will be available at the festivities.

Atlanta

The city’s Peach Drop, an outdoor celebration that typically draws thousands, was canceled.

San Francisco

With staffing shortages of municipal workers brought on by Omicron infections, the city canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks show.

Seattle

There will be no spectators allowed at the Space Needle’s fireworks show. People can watch on a livestream instead.

London

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, announced last week that the New Year’s Eve event in Trafalgar Square was canceled, saying, “The safety of Londoners must come first.”

Paris

Paris has canceled its celebration, which was to include fireworks over the Champs-?lys?es. Large public parties are also banned. Additionally, wearing masks outdoors is mandatory, beginning Friday.

Rome

Celebrations have been scrapped in several Italian cities, including Rome and Venice. Outdoor events have been banned, and nightclubs will be closed through January.

Berlin

Berlin’s annual New Year’s Eve party at the Brandenburg Gate will go on, but without an audience. The performances will be live on television. Gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people.

Tokyo

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 Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

New Delhi

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.

Cape Town

Cape Town is still allowing New Year’s Eve gatherings, but several restrictions are in place. Masks are required in public areas and nightclubs are closed.

Casablanca

The authorities banned New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout Morocco, including in Casablanca, its most populous city. There will be a curfew from midnight to 6 a.m.

Kampala

There is a ban on New Year’s Eve fireworks across Uganda, including in Kampala, the capital. Nighttime religious services are also prohibited.

Madrid

Large public festivities have been canceled across much of Spain. One exception is Madrid, where a crowd of up to 7,000 people is allowed to gather at the central Puerta del Sol square.

Mexico City

Mexico’s capital canceled its typically giant celebrations.

Dec. 30, 2021, 2:23 p.m. ETDec. 30, 2021, 2:23 p.m. ET
A news conference this month about the return of the New Year’s Eve fireworks show in Las Vegas.Credit…K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Most large New Year’s Eve events in the United States have been canceled or diminished, as the nation shattered its record for new daily coronavirus cases on Wednesday. But Chicago, Las Vegas and San Antonio are a few of the anomalies, having neither scrapped nor pared back their plans.

In Las Vegas, city officials say that they expect more than 300,000 people on the Strip and downtown for the return — after a one-year hiatus — of New Year’s Eve fireworks. Masks remain required indoors, but face coverings and social distancing are optional outdoors.

“We have to get back the best we can to having normal lives,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman said on Wednesday at a news briefing.

Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, is averaging about 1,255 new cases a day, more than double the average from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. About 53 percent of adults in the county are fully vaccinated.

Revelers in San Antonio are also returning to ring in 2022, after last year’s events were canceled in downtown’s Riverwalk because of the pandemic. The event, Celebrate SA, did not suffer from cancellations, despite a steady rise in Covid cases in the city attributed to the Omicron variant.

Crowds are expected to descend on La Villita and the area surrounding the Hemisfair park, including the Tower of the Americas, to enjoy live music and a fireworks show. Officials had said they felt outdoor spaces provided fewer opportunities for new infections.

Ron Nirenberg, the mayor of San Antonio, urged residents to wear masks in crowded places and get vaccinated as precautionary measures.

“When in doubt, mask up, especially in large crowds or when you don’t know the vaccination status of the people you’re with,” Mr. Nirenberg said.

Omicron accounted for about 25 percent of all new infections in Texas during the week of Dec. 11, according to the state’s health department. A week later that figure ballooned to about 85 percent.

Chicago will have a downtown fireworks display, even as cases in the city have soared to record levels. The fireworks will be launched at eight sites along a 1.5-mile stretch of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, where several businesses have arranged viewing parties.

“Importantly, the display can be viewed outdoors where the spread of Covid-19 is less likely, so our residents and visitors should feel comfortable while masking up and social distancing or even watching safely from home,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.

An indoor mask mandate remains in place in Chicago. Next week, a vaccine mandate will take effect for people wishing to dine indoors or visit gyms.

Dec. 29, 2021, 4:12 p.m. ETDec. 29, 2021, 4:12 p.m. ET
Eric Adams will be sworn in by the city clerk, using Mr. Adams’s family Bible. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Eric Adams will be sworn in as the 110th mayor of New York City in Times Square early Saturday, shortly after the Waterford Crystal ball drops on 2021.

“Times Square has long been synonymous with the New Year — a place of excitement, renewal, and hope for the future,” Mr. Adams said in a statement. “These are the same themes that animated my campaign and will inform my mayoralty, as I prepare to lead the city out of this challenging period.”

The city clerk will swear him in using Mr. Adams’s family Bible, and he will take office on Saturday at the tourist hot spot sometimes called the “Crossroads of the World.”

Mr. Adams has made a point of reveling in New York City’s nightlife, something that he has cast as boosterism for the city’s struggling club and restaurant scene. His swearing-in will come on the heels of Times Square’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration, featuring live performances by KT TunstaChl?e, and Journey.

Some epidemiologists have argued that Mayor Bill de Blasio should cancel the outdoor event in deference to the spread of the Omicron variant, but he has resisted, instead agreeing to limit the crowds to 15,000 and requiring masks and full vaccination.

Mr. Adams recently canceled an indoor inauguration ceremony he had planned for Saturday evening at Brooklyn’s opulently restored Kings Theatre, citing the surge in coronavirus cases. It isn’t clear when the ceremony will be rescheduled.

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