LONDON — Fireworks lit up the sky above the Sydney Opera House, but most people were barred from downtown. The ball dropped in New York’s Times Square, and while the musicians performed live, the huge crowds of revelers were absent.
The chaotic year saw the world roiled by a deadly pandemic, so it’s only fitting that New Year’s celebrations worldwide were muted or canceled altogether as authorities tried to stop crowds from gathering to limit the spread of the virus.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday morning expressed a sentiment that was surely shared by many others: “We are so ready to kick 2020 out the door.”
The Times Square ball drop, held in honor of health care workers, first responders, essential workers and others, was livestreamed and broadcast. Musical acts referenced the lives lost in the pandemic. Gloria Gaynor sang “I Will Survive.”
Amid growing concern about global spread of a new coronavirus variant first found in the United Kingdom, more people have been forced into lockdowns, putting a damper on the traditional celebrations and the usual throngs of revelers.
“I can imagine that there will be plenty of people who will be only too happy to say goodbye to the grimness of 2020,” United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video address Thursday.
“But just before we do, I want to remind you that this was also the year when we rediscovered a spirit of togetherness, of community,” he said. “It was a year in which we banged saucepans to celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice of our NHS (National Health Service) staff and care home workers, a year in which working people pulled the stops out to keep the country moving in the biggest crisis we’ve faced for generations.”
In Sydney, which was among the first big cities to ring in 2021, the city’s traditional New Year’s celebrations were scaled back amid harsher restrictions on movement, gatherings and internal borders, but the fireworks display over the Opera House and harbor bridge still went ahead.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian banned most people from going to Sydney’s downtown Thursday night.
“We don’t want to create any superspreading events on New Year’s Eve,” she said earlier this week, adding that watching the fireworks from home was the safest way to do so.
Melbourne, Australia’s second-most populous city, canceled its fireworks altogether this year.
Meanwhile, Australia’s neighbor, New Zealand, saw its New Year celebrations go on largely as usual after the nation managed to curb local transmission of the virus.
Hong Kong usually sees raucous celebrations along the waterfront and in bar districts. For the second year running, however, New Year’s Eve fireworks were canceled, this time over the coronavirus rather than public security concerns.
In South Korea, the government shut down the beaches in Gangueng, on the country’s east coast, where people traditionally go to watch the first sunrise of the New Year. Seoul’s Bosingak bell-ringing ceremony was canceled for the first time since 1953, and instead viewed “virtually” on the city’s website.
As new coronavirus infections in Tokyo hit a record high of more than 1,300 Thursday, New Year’s Eve celebrations were curtailed. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged people to celebrate the occasion quietly and avoid nonessential outings.
Emperor Naruhito delivered a video message for the new year, instead of waving from a window with the imperial family as cheering crowds throng the palace.
New York is expected to hold a smaller than usual New Year’s Eve event, with the public banned from attending the celebrations and the ‘ball drop’ event livestreamed.
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In Europe, celebrations will also be muted.
Germany banned the sale of fireworks, which residents usually set off in on the streets, and a pyrotechnics show at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is off.
Fireworks over the River Thames in London were canceled as the government urged people to celebrate at home to contain soaring case numbers. However, Big Ben, which has been largely silent since 2017 while its clock tower is restored, sounded to mark the start of the new year and the end of Britain’s transition out of the European Union.
The Netherlands moved the national countdown from an Amsterdam park to a soccer stadium, where spectators were not allowed in and pyrotechnics were replaced with “electric fireworks.”
France’s interior minister said an extra 100,000 police officers were mobilized to enforce a 7 p.m. curfew and break up unauthorized gatherings of more than 10 people.
In Rome, customary concerts in public plazas were scrapped in favor of livestreamed performances and art installations.
Pope Francis skipped his typical Dec. 31 visit to the Vatican’s life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. But a planned New Year’s Day blessing, which was to be delivered indoors to prevent crowds, was also canceled due to sciatica pain, the Vatican press office said.
In Russia, public events were banned or restricted in many regions, but traditional fireworks still took place in the capital’s Red Square and throughout the city. While mass gatherings were banned and restaurants, clubs and ice rinks were shut Thursday night, they reopen Friday as Russians embark on weeklong festivities that span Orthodox Christmas.
Turkey declared a four-day lockdown starting New Year’s Eve, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that security forces will inspect hotels for illicit parties.
Yuiiya Talmazan reported from London and Phil Helsel from Los Angeles.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.