Omicron wave hangs over New Years celebrations

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A record wave of Covid-19 infections fueled by the spread of the contagious variant of Omicron has tarnished New Years celebrations around the world, and party-goers are urged to exercise caution amid rising cases.

Despite hopes that 2021 would mark a return to normal after the pandemic halted many celebrations last New Year’s Eve, many cities and countries either canceled or scaled back planned celebrations and urged residents to limit the size of their gatherings.

London has canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks, but New York City’s Times Square celebrations will continue even as infection rates in the city hit record highs. Still, only 15,000 people are allowed to attend the ball drop event, which typically attracts nearly 60,000 from around the world.

Pope Francis arrives on Friday to celebrate New Year’s Eve Vespers in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican © AP

Guests must be vaccinated and wear masks to attend the outdoor event, though public health experts have questioned whether the event should even take place. In 2020 the event was closed to the public.

Eric Adams is sworn in as the city’s new mayor at the Times Square ceremony shortly after losing the ball after canceling his Brooklyn indoor housewarming party due to the spate of cases.

In New York State, the Covid-19 infection rate is more than 230 cases per 100,000, more than twice the national average, the highest since the pandemic began, according to an FT data analysis.
Lines that span several blocks are a common sight outside of test centers.

Experts warn of large gatherings as the seven-day average of new cases in the United States climbed to nearly 350,000, the highest ever. San Francisco canceled its fireworks display, while Atlanta, Georgia canceled its annual peach drop.

Revelers celebrate the New Year outside Flinders Street Station during New Years Eve celebrations in Melbourne, Australia. © Getty Images

Speaking at a press conference at the White House on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s Senior Medical Advisor, that for those planning to attend large gatherings, “Everyone hugs and kisses and wishes each other a Happy New Year – I would highly recommend this this year.” , we do not do that.”

New Year celebrations around the world started subdued. Australia continued its traditional fireworks display over Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, but the crowds were much smaller than usual after the country’s health authorities reported a record 32,000 new Covid cases, most of them in New South Wales.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, which has reported no local Omicron spread, has scrapped its usual Auckland fireworks display in favor of a smaller light show.

Students hold candles during a rally to pray for peace in 2022 on New Years Eve in Lahore, Pakistan © RAHAT DAR / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

In Germany, Olaf Scholz used his first New Year’s address as Federal Chancellor to promote an ambitious initiative to dispense 30 million doses of Covid 19 booster vaccinations by the end of January, as the country was preparing for an upswing in the Omicron variant.

Germany has introduced tough new contact restrictions to combat the spread of Omicron, limiting the number of people who can attend social gatherings. “Tonight we will have to do without big New Year’s Eve parties or big fireworks again,” said Scholz.

France, where Covid-19 cases hit another record of over 232,000 on December 31, had previously canceled its traditional fireworks display in major cities, including Paris. Bars and restaurants also have to close their doors at 2 a.m., and dancing is prohibited in public places. In Paris and cities like Lyon, people on the streets have to wear face masks again.

But the French government avoided stubborn measures to contain the spread during the new year, including the widespread early evening curfews that were in place last year.

“The coming weeks will be difficult, we all know,” said Emmanuel Macron, President of the country, during a New Year’s Eve speech, adding that he was optimistic about the coming year and the possible end of the epidemic.

A traditional fireworks display on the Copacabana coast of Rio de Janeiro will take place Friday evening, but unlike in previous years there will be no live concerts on the beach.

In addition to restrictions on entering the neighborhood, authorities have also organized exhibitions elsewhere in the city to avoid large crowds on Copacabana, which drew an estimated 2.9 million people in 2020.

While government numbers show an increase in Covid-19 cases in Brazil, experts say the full extent is unclear as certain databases tracking the pandemic are not fully functional after a cyberattack on Ministry of Health websites earlier this month. Dozens of other cities in Latin America’s most populous nation have canceled official New Years Eve celebrations.

In South Africa, which has officially peaked its fourth omicron-powered wave after avoiding a significant surge in deaths, “better times are in sight” in 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised New Year’s Eve address Friday.

A runner wearing a bespoke coronavirus hat awaits the start of the Sao Silvestre international race in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Friday. The race, which was canceled last year due to Covid, was closed to spectators © AP

South Africans can stay outside after midnight for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began to celebrate this New Year’s Eve after Ramaphosa’s government ended a nightly curfew, which was one of the last remaining major lockdown restrictions in the country.

South Africa had suffered a high death toll from past waves in 2021 and “Millions of families are struggling to get food on the table” in Africa’s most industrial economy, Ramaphosa said.

In downtown Dubai, thousands lined the streets to cheer for a show of lights and fireworks at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, despite the United Arab Emirates reporting 2,500 Covid infections on Friday, the highest number since March. A group of young British women were holding hands and singing Auld Lang Syne in the middle of a crowd of men trying to take selfies with them.

Marcus and Mariana, a couple from Germany and Ukraine who had traveled to Dubai for New Year’s Eve, disagreed on whether to take the pandemic seriously. “I’m not worried at all. It’s not as bad as it is on the news, “said Mariana. Her friend interjected, “I don’t agree with that. We take care.”

In a club in a nearby hotel, Victoria, a tourist from Belgium, sipped cocktails with her friends. She shrugged when it came to the recent surge in cases. “I got Covid two months ago,” she said.

Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg, Madison Darbyshire in New York, Imani Moise in Chicago, Michael Pooler in São Paulo, Samer Al-Atrush in Dubai and Sarah White in Paris


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