New York City ushered in the New Year – and bid good riddance to another pandemic-marred 12 months – as it revived its annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square, after forgoing a public event last year.
It did so as an uneasy nation tried to muster optimism that the worst days of the pandemic are now behind it – even as public health officials cautioned on Friday against unbridled celebrations amid surging Covid-19 infections from the Omicron variant.
The year marched across the globe, time zone by time zone, and thousands of revellers stood shoulder to shoulder in a slight chill to await the festivities.
In Times Square, throngs stretched for blocks to soak up the scaled-back celebration, with many travelling from afar to take part. Confetti lit up by electronic billboards swirled in a light wind on a mild winter's night in New York City.
Mary Gonzalez stood a few metres behind a crowd, wanting to keep her distance from anyone unwittingly carrying the coronavirus.
“I’m happy that 2021 is over because it caused a lot of problems for everybody,” said Ms Gonzalez, who was visiting from Mexico City and wanted to take in an American tradition. “We hope that 2022 is much better than this year.”
The annual ball drop took place as the clock ticked into midnight and ushers in the New Year, an occasion usually commemorated with joyous embraces and hopes for better times ahead.
Times Square is often referred to as the crossroads of the world, and city officials insisted on holding the marquee New Year’s Eve event to demonstrate the city’s resilience even amid a resurgence of the coronavirus.
Still, the city said it would limit the number of people it let into Times Square to witness a 6-tonne ball, encrusted with nearly 2,700 Waterford crystals, descend above a crowd of about 15,000 spectators – far fewer than the many tens of thousands of revellers who usually descend on the world-famous square to bask in the lights, hoopla and shower of confetti during the nation’s marquee New Year’s Eve event.
But 2022 begins just as the year prior began – with the pandemic clouding an already uncertain future.
Doubts swirled about whether New York would have to cancel this year’s bash. It posted record numbers of Covid-19 cases in the days leading up to it, even as some cities like Atlanta decided to cancel their celebrations.
Last year’s ball drop was closed to the public because of the pandemic.
Covid-19 cases in the US have soared to their highest levels on record, reaching more than 265,000 a day on average. New York reported a record number of new, confirmed cases – nearly 44,000 – on Wednesday and a similar number Thursday, according to state figures.
But Mayor Bill de Blasio, who left office at midnight, said the festivities at Times Square would “show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this”.
Officials said those attending would have to wear masks and show proof of vaccination. Organisers had initially hoped that more than 50,000 revellers would be able to join in, but the plans were dramatically scaled back because of widespread infections.
Rapper and actor LL Cool J was supposed to be among the performers on the stage in Times Square on Friday night, but announced he would pull out of the event because he had tested positive for Covid.
New York City’s incoming mayor, Eric Adams, was scheduled to take his oath in Times Square soon after the ball drop.
“It’s just great when New York shows the entire country of how we come back,” he said during a brief appearance earlier on the main stage.
“We showed the entire globe what we’re made of. We’re unbelievable. This is an unbelievable city and, trust me, we’re ready for a major comeback, because this is New York.”
That hopeful sentiment was shared by ordinary people.
“I look back and I see it as a sort of a stressful year, but it wasn’t a terrible year,” said Lynn Cafarchio, who braved the crowds to attend the festivities with her husband, Pete.
A New York City tour guide, she was unemployed for a time as the economy slowed down and tourism shrank.
“We’re standing here, glad that 2021 will soon be over,” she said, “but really positive about next year.”
Even if the crowds were considerably smaller, people gathered across block after block to witness the ball drop.
Nursing student Ashley Ochoa and her boyfriend, Jose Avelar, travelled from the central valley of California specifically to be at Times Square.
“Covid did hold a lot of stuff back for me,” Ms Ochoa said, “but I mean, I’m here today, so that’s what I’m thankful for.”