Omicron dampens global New Year celebrations, fewer watch ball drop in Times Square

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 poll at the midnight hour in Times Square, but only 15,000 spectators were allowed into the official viewing area instead of the usual 58,000.

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.

Worldwide infections hit a record high over the past seven-day period, with an average of just over a million cases detected a day between Dec. 24 and 30, up some 100,000 on the previous peak posted on Wednesday, according to Reuters data. Deaths, however, have not risen in kind, bringing hope the new variant is less lethal.

New York City reported a record 44,000 cases on Wednesday and another 43,000 on Thursday, leading some critics to question whether the celebrations should go ahead at all.

But officials decided an outdoor party of vaccinated, masked and socially distant revellers was safe, and a better option than the virtually vacant celebration that rung in 2021.

“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. It will just be more meaningful to be in the crowd.”

Elsewhere around the globe, events were scaled back or cancelled outright, such as with the traditional fireworks over the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

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 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 had been 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 a restoration.

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