New Year is greeted in muted fashion as leaders warn, Covid loves a crowd
Many people will want to put 2020 firmly behind them. But governments around the world have pleaded with people not to see in 2021 with traditional New Year’s Eve parties and street celebrations for fear of accelerating the spread of coronavirus.
The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland, India and Australia are among the many nations where this year’s New Year festivities remained a muted affair.
Exactly a year has passed since mysterious cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, were first reported to the World Health Organization. Over the following 365 days, Covid-19 has extended its reach into every corner of the globe, infecting more than 82 million people and causing at least 1.8 million deaths.
Millions of people are under lockdown and many more face tough restrictions on everyday activities as governments battle to keep health care systems afloat until newly approved vaccines can be rolled out.
In Australia, the traditional firework display lit up the skies above the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
But the display was shorter than usual and people were banned from gathering along the harbor unless they were in hospitality venues, where numbers were capped, the New South Wales government said.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian apologized Monday for the restrictions but said they were necessary to prevent a potential super-spreading event. “On New Year’s Eve, we don’t want any crowds on the foreshores around Sydney whatsoever,” Berejiklian said.
A mass gathering on Sydney’s Bronte Beach on Christmas Day, in breach of local anti-Covid-19 rules, caused public outcry at a time when authorities are tackling a cluster of infections in the city’s northern beaches area.
Meanwhile, the neighboring state of Victoria issued fresh coronavirus restrictions hours before New Year’s Eve celebrations were due to begin. Gatherings of more than 15 people are no longer allowed and masks are mandatory indoors.
The move came as Victoria reported three new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases on Thursday morning, breaking a 61-day streak of zero locally transmitted cases. There are currently 10 active cases in the state, according to Victoria’s Department of Health.
New Zealand’s widely envied success in stamping out coronavirus infections meant New Year’s Eve could be celebrated more or less as usual. Fireworks lit up the night sky above Auckland as the city welcomed in the New Year.
In Hong Kong, the traditional New Year’s celebrations were replaced by a virtual countdown with the Hong Kong Tourism Board live streaming a celebratory video to mark the arrival of the New Year.
In China, President Xi Jinping delivered a taped New Year speech on Thursday, praising the country for its response to the pandemic.
Fireworks went ahead as planned in Taiwan’s Taipei, although some restrictions were placed on those attending public viewing spots. According to the Taipei city government’s website, masks were mandatory and people were required to bring their cell phones for possible contact tracing. Food and drinks other than water were banned at the gatherings.
Several major cities in India issued restrictions on New Year’s celebrations. Authorities in Delhi limited public gatherings to five people and imposed an overnight curfew between 11 p.m. on December 31 and 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
Restrictions were also imposed in Mumbai and Bengaluru. “After 11 p.m., no parties — whether they are in restaurants, bars, pubs, the beach or on rooftops will be allowed… And we will be monitoring all this through drones,” S. Chaitanya, a spokesperson for Mumbai Police, told local media.
The rate of coronavirus infections has declined steadily in India since October. The country has registered a total of 10.26 million cases, with more than 148,000 deaths.
‘Leave the parties till later’
In Europe, where cases have risen sharply in recent months, the usual end-of-year festivities have been heavily restricted in many countries.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to “see in the New Year safely at home” at a Downing Street press briefing Wednesday, as he said there had been a 40% increase in cases in England in the past week.
The UK recorded 964 coronavirus deaths and 55,892 new cases on Thursday, government figures show, as the country grapples with the rapid spread of a new, more contagious coronavirus variant.
“Covid loves a crowd so please leave the parties till later,” said the National Medical Director of NHS England, Stephen Powis, as he too urged people to stay at home on New Year’s Eve.
As of Thursday, more than three-quarters of the English population are now living under the country’s toughest “tier 4” restrictions, which require people to stay at home except for work, education, exercise or essential activities. No household mixing is allowed indoors, while outside, one person from each household can meet with just one person from another household.
London’s Metropolitan Police Service issued a warning to potential party-goers to “celebrate the New Year in the comfort of their own homes, not the homes of family and friends.”
For the first time since he was elected in 2013, Pope Francis will not lead the traditional New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations due to sciatic pain, the Vatican said in a statement Thursday.
Ireland situation ‘extremely serious’
Ireland’s Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, announced a full national lockdown Wednesday for “at least” a month. The step followed confirmation that the new, more virulent strain of coronavirus first discovered in the UK was now in Ireland, he said, fueling a 61% increase in confirmed coronavirus cases on the previous week.
The restrictions, which came into force Thursday, include a ban on household visits and the closure of non-essential shops. Schools will remain closed until January 11. No social or family gatherings are allowed in any setting, with an exception for very small wedding and funeral groups.
Martin described the situation as “extremely serious.”
In France, a strict 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew is in place in a bid to stem rising coronavirus infections, curtailing public New Year’s Eve celebrations across the country. Instead, a virtual concert marked the occasion.
Health Minister Olivier Véran warned Tuesday that the country could adopt an earlier curfew — starting from 6 p.m. — from January 2 in the areas where the virus is spreading fastest. The 20 or more “departments” affected do not include Paris.
Under government guidelines, gatherings are limited to six adults, although any number of children can be present. Restaurants are closed except for takeaway and cafés are closed, although shops, including non-essential shops, are open. Cinemas, museums and theaters are all closed.
Tough restrictions are also in place across Germany to limit the spread of coronavirus. In the Greek capital of Athens, fireworks marked the beginning of 2021 without the usual crowds. The city has been under a strict lockdown with residents only allowed to leave their homes in specific situation and with a movement permit.
‘Super-spreader events’ fear
South Africa, too, faced a less than festive New Year period. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced tougher restrictions Monday as new coronavirus infections climbed at what he described as an “unprecedented rate.”
Under the tougher regulations, which are in place until mid-January, all indoor and outdoor gatherings are banned, the nationwide curfew has been extended from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and alcohol sales are banned. Mask wearing was also made a legal requirement.
The move came after a new Covid-19 variant was detected in South Africa and cases surged during the festive season. More than 50,000 new cases have been reported since Christmas Eve, Ramaphosa said.
“The rapid rise in infections is being fueled by so-called super-spreader events, including end-of-year functions, family and social gatherings, and music and cultural events,” Ramaphosa said.
Some leaders have also urged caution in the United States as coronavirus cases soar in many parts of the country.
No crowds will be allowed to enter New York City’s Times Square this year for the famous “ball drop” celebration, usually witnessed by thousands of revelers.
The New Year’s Eve Times Square event “will look completely different than it has any other time in history,” New York Police Department chief Terence A. Monahan said Wednesday.
“We could all agree that 2020 has been a year unlike anything else we’ve experienced,” he told a briefing, as he urged people to stay at home with their families. “Don’t come,” he said. “If you think you’re going to be able to stand there and watch the ball, you’re mistaken.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Wednesday urged people to “reconsider” going out to celebrate New Year’s Eve to slow the spread of Covid-19 in the state.
“It’s not lost on me that Las Vegas is known for being one of the best places in the world to ring in the new year. But this year, we must look different,” Sisolak said during a news briefing.
“I know people want to celebrate the end of 2020, and I don’t blame them. But if we don’t start making smart choices at the start of 2021, we will look a lot and feel a lot more like 2020 than any of us want it to be.”
Meanwhile, in California, among the last US states to celebrate the New Year, three new cases of the coronavirus variant first seen in the UK have been detected, health officials confirmed Thursday.
“The discovery of the additional cases leads county health officials to believe that the new strain of the virus is widespread in the community,” a San Diego county spokesperson said.
The new cases of the UK variant, which is believed to be highly infectious, were found in two men in their 40s and one man in his 50s following diagnostic testing.
“Contact tracing shows two men did not travel outside of the county while the third case has yet to be fully interviewed,” county health officials said in a statement. “None of the men had any known interaction with each other or the other confirmed case.”