By Renju José and Sisipho Skweyiya
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Although celebrations of farewell to the pandemic year 2021 were almost as stifled as those that ushered in, news that the Omicron variant wave appeared to be starting to recede has brought hope for ‘a happier new year.
The Australian city of Sydney was a place where the New Years loaded with something like full bluster, as spectacular fireworks sparkled in the harbor above the Opera House.
But many other iconic cities were forgoing pyrotechnics as midnight fell across the world, with canceled exhibitions at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the London Riverfront, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
The glittering ball is still due to drop in Times Square in New York City, but the crowd shouting the countdown to the year out is expected to be a quarter of their usual size – masked, socially distanced, and with vaccine proof in hand.
Yet South Africa, which first sounded the alarm about the new variant of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, gave the world one of the last big good surprises of the year, becoming the first country to declare that his Omicron wave had reached its peak – and without a huge surge in deaths. The abrupt lifting of a nighttime curfew meant celebrations could ring in 2022.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be amazing. I just hope Cape Town turns back into the old Cape Town we all knew,” said Michael Mchede, manager of a Hard Rock Café on the white sands of Cape Town. Town’s Camps Bay Beach, who was delighted to find themselves setting up the place to host an unexpected party.
Nearby, tourist Jochem Verbunt said his hope for 2022 was “for the crown to go.”
“I’m glad you don’t have to go back to the hotel. You can take a walk on the beautiful beach from here, and let’s see if that brings a party! “
The sudden arrival of Omicron has resulted in a record number of cases in countries around the world. Although deaths have not increased in kind, giving hope that the new variant is milder, many countries have reimposed restrictions to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed. Even where gatherings are permitted, many people have chosen to stay in their homes.
At La Querida, a restaurant serving grilled octopus and stuffed peppers in Madrid’s Pozuelo neighborhood, only four out of two dozen tables were reserved for New Years Eve. The place was almost crowded every night a few weeks ago. barely before Omicron called off business, said row chief Juan Lozano.
“We all thought (…) that we would be able to make money and pay a lot of things late,” he said. “The outlook is horribly bad.”
Wendy Garcia took her 7-year-old son to central Madrid for a dress rehearsal for the main New Years Eve celebration the day before, to give him a taste of the fun he missed last year but without a large crowd. .
“This is the time to be together, to mark a New Year and to feel that excitement when the bells are ringing and we are sharing chocolates and candies,” she said.
London’s Big Ben, atop Parliament, is set to ring at midnight and ring New Years for the first time since 2017, after more than three years of restoration.
The Times Square celebration in New York, with just 15,000 spectators instead of the usual 55,000, will be a big improvement over the audience of a few dozen last year. But with New York state reporting more than 74,000 cases as of Thursday and 22% of tests being positive, critics have questioned whether the celebrations should continue.
In Los Angeles, the countdown party at Grand Park has been canceled.
Rapper LL Cool J had to quit his headlining job on ABC’s New Years TV show after testing positive.
At a Party City, Texas store, Dana Fenner’s hands were full of hats and horns for a low-key home party with her husband and three children.
“Normalcy. I want everything to go back to normal,” she said.
Global coronavirus infections hit an all-time high in the past seven days, with an average of just over one million cases detected per day globally between December 24 and December 30, up by about 100,000 from the previous peak released Wednesday, according to Reuters data. .
As staff were ill, airlines had to cancel some flights. As of Friday morning, more than 2,500 were canceled worldwide, including 1,100 involving US airports, according to a count on the flight tracking site FlightAware.com.
In Asia, the celebrations have for the most part been reduced or canceled. In South Korea, a traditional midnight ringing ceremony was canceled for the second year, while the festivities were banned in Tokyo’s glittering Shibuya entertainment district, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took to YouTube. to urge people to wear masks and limit the number at parties.
China, where the coronavirus first appeared in late 2019, was on high alert with the city of Xian closed and New Year’s events in other cities canceled.
But there was good news in Britain, where a study of one million cases found people with Omicron to be about a third more likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta variant. previously dominant. The results were “in line with the encouraging signs we have already seen,” said Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency.
(Reporting by Reuters offices; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Nick Macfie, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese)