- Fireworks in London, Paris and Kuala Lumpur canceled
- South Africa lifts curfew and announces that the Omicron wave has peaked
- Countdown in Times Square planned with a quarter of the usual amount
SYDNEY, Jan. 1 (Reuters) – Though the farewell celebrations for pandemic year 2021 were almost as subdued as those that ushered it in, news that the wave of Omicron variants appeared to be starting to recede brought hope for a happier New Year.
The Australian city of Sydney was a place where the New Year started with something like boasting when spectacular fireworks glittered in the harbor above the Opera House.
But many other major cities abandoned pyrotechnics as midnight rolled across the globe, with demonstrations at Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, London’s riverside, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
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The glittering ball is supposed to still fall in New York’s Times Square, but the crowd screaming the countdown to the end of the year will be a quarter of its usual size – masked, socially distant, and with a vaccine certificate in hand.
Still, South Africa, which raised the alarm for the first time about the new, rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus, gave the world one of the last big good surprises of the year and was the first country to declare that its Omicron wave has peaked – and without it large increase in deaths. The abrupt lifting of a nightly curfew meant celebrations could begin in 2022.
“I’m pretty sure it’ll be great. I just hope Cape Town returns to the old Cape Town we all knew,” said Michael Mchede, manager of a Hard Rock Cafe on the white sands of Cape Camps Bay Beach City that was excited to prepare the place for an unexpected party.
Nearby, tourist Jochem Verbunt said his hope for 2022 was “that Corona is gone”.
“I’m glad you don’t have to go back to the hotel. You can walk around on the beautiful beach over here and see if there’s a party!”
The sudden arrival of Omicron has brought record-breaking case numbers in countries around the world. Although the death toll has not increased, which gives hope that the new variant is milder, many countries have reintroduced restrictions to prevent health systems from becoming overburdened. Even where gatherings are allowed, many people have chosen to stay at home.
At La Querida, a restaurant with grilled squid and stuffed peppers in the Pozuelo district of Madrid, only four out of two dozen tables were booked for New Year’s Eve. The store had been nearly full every night a few weeks ago before Omicron closed the shops, said head waiter Juan Lozano.
“We all thought we could make some money and pay off a lot of things that were overdue,” he said. “The prospects are terrible.”
Wendy Garcia took her 7-year-old son to the main New Year’s rehearsal in central Madrid the night before to give him a taste of the fun he missed last year but without the large crowds.
“It’s a time to be together, celebrate a new year and feel that excitement when the bells ring and we share chocolate and candy,” she said.
London’s Big Ben, above the Houses of Parliament, will ring at midnight for the first time since 2017 after over three years of restoration and usher in the new year.
The New York Times Square celebrations, with just 15,000 instead of the usual 55,000, will be a big upgrade from last year’s few dozen. But with New York State reporting more than 74,000 cases on Thursday and 22% of tests showing positive, critics wondered if the celebrations should even take place.
In Los Angeles, the Grand Park countdown party has been canceled.
Rapper LL Cool J was forced to step down as headliner on ABC’s New Years Eve show after testing positive.
At a Party City store in Texas, Dana Fenner’s hands were full of hats and horns for a low profile party at home with her husband and three children.
“Normality. I want everything to go back to normal, ”she said.
Global coronavirus infections hit a record high in the past seven days, with an average of just over a million cases detected worldwide between December 24th and 30th, about 100,000 more than the previous high on Wednesday, according to Reuters data.
Because the staff is sick, the airlines have had to cancel some flights. More than 2,500 cancellations worldwide, including 1,100 US airports, were canceled early Friday, according to a tally on flight tracking website FlightAware.com.
In Asia, celebrations were usually downsized or canceled. In South Korea, a traditional midnight ceremony has been canceled for the second time, while celebrations have been banned in Tokyo’s glittering Shibuya entertainment district and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has posted on YouTube encouraging people to wear masks and limit the number of parties.
China, where the coronavirus first appeared in late 2019, was on high alert as Xian city was locked and New Year’s events in other cities were canceled.
But there was good news from the UK, where a one million case study found those with Omicron were about a third as likely to be hospitalized as those with the previously dominant Delta variant. The results were “in line with the encouraging signs we have already seen,” said Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency.
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Reporting from Reuters Offices Letter from Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.