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Omicron wave hangs over New Year celebrations

A record wave of Covid-19 infections, propelled by the spread of the contagious Omicron variant, has clouded New Year’s celebrations around the world, urging revelers to exercise caution in the face of rising cases.

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

London canceled the official New Year’s Eve fireworks but threw a last-minute party on television screens across the UK. At midnight, Big Ben ushered in the New Year for the first time since 2017 after a restoration of the clock tower above the Houses of Parliament.

The New York Times Square celebration will continue even as the number of infections in the city rises to record highs. Still, only 15,000 people will be allowed to attend the ball drop event, which typically attracts nearly 60,000 people from around the world.

Guests must be vaccinated and wear masks to attend the outdoor event, although public health experts questioned whether the event should go ahead at all. In 2020 the event was closed to the public.

Eric Adams will be sworn in as the city’s new mayor at the Times Square celebration shortly after the ball drops, after canceling his indoor Brooklyn inauguration party due to the business wave.

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

In New York state, the number of Covid-19 infections is more than twice the US average, with more than 230 cases per 100,000 people, the highest since the start of the pandemic, according to an FT analysis of data.
Lines spanning multiple city blocks have become a common sight outside test centers.

Experts have warned against large gatherings as the seven-day average of new cases in the US rose to nearly 350,000, the highest on record. San Francisco canceled the fireworks, while Atlanta canceled the Georgia state capital’s annual “Peach Drop.”

At a White House press conference on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, that for those planning to attend large gatherings with “everyone hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy new year – I would strongly recommend that this year we do not”.

The New Year celebrations around the world started in a hushed fashion. Australia continued with 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 in the state of New South Wales.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, which has reported no local spread of Omicron, has phased out the usual Auckland fireworks in favor of a smaller light show.

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

In Germany, Olaf Scholz used his first New Year’s speech as chancellor to push an ambitious bid to deliver 30 million doses of Covid-19 booster shots by the end of January, as the country braced itself for a rebound in the case of the Omicron variant. .

Germany has introduced strict new contact restrictions to curb the spread of Omicron, putting a limit on the number of people who can attend social gatherings. “Tonight we will have to do it again without big New Years Eve parties or big fireworks,” Scholz said.

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

But the French government eschewed crackdowns over the New Year period to contain the spread, including the widespread curfew in effect last year.

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

Students hold candles at a gathering to pray for peace in the year 2022 on New Year’s Eve in Pakistan, Lahore © RAHAT DAR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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

In addition to restrictions on entering the neighborhood, authorities have also organized screenings at other locations in the Brazilian city to avoid large crowds at Copacabana, which drew an estimated 2.9 million people to see in 2020.

While government figures show a rise in Covid-19 cases in Brazil, experts say the full extent is unclear as certain databases tracking the pandemic are not fully operational following a cyberattack on health ministry websites this month. Dozens of other cities in Latin America’s most populous country have canceled official New Year’s celebrations.

In a pre-recorded speech, President Jair Bolsonaro criticized “vaccine passports” and argued that children between the ages of five and 11 should be vaccinated against Covid-19 only with a medical prescription and parental consent.

After the Brazilian health regulator approved the BioNTech/Pfizer injection for this age group, the government opened a public consultation on the matter.

“Freedom must be respected,” said the far-right leader, who has downplayed respiratory disease, despised the use of masks and spoke out against lockdowns to keep the economy open.

A runner dressed in a custom coronavirus hat awaits the start of the Sao Silvestre International Race in Brazil’s Sao Paulo on Friday. The race, which was canceled last year due to Covid, was closed to spectators © AP

In South Africa, which has officially passed the peak of its fourth Omicron-powered wave after avoiding a significant increase in deaths, “better times are on the horizon” in 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised aired New Year’s Eve speech on Friday.

South Africans will be able to stay out after midnight to celebrate this New Year’s Eve for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, after the Ramaphosa government ended a curfew that was one of the country’s last remaining major lockdown restrictions.

South Africa suffered a heavy death toll from previous waves in 2021 and “millions of families struggle to get food on the table” in Africa’s most industrialized economy, Ramaphosa said.

In central Dubai, thousands of people lined the streets to cheer on a light and fireworks display at 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 held hands and sang Auld Lang Syne amid a group 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 in the news,’ Mariana said. Her friend intervened: “I don’t agree with this. We’ll watch out.”

At a club in a nearby hotel, Victoria, a tourist from Belgium, sipped cocktails with her friends. She shook off the latest wave of business. “I got Covid two months ago,” she said.

Reported 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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