Blue and gold fireworks soared into the sky above the Sydney Opera House as they do every year, but the harbour below was a ghost town, a fittingly creepy send-off for a year that will not be missed.
No light show will illuminate Beijing from the top of the TV tower. The lions of London’s Trafalgar Square will be barricaded off, as will Red Square in Moscow. In Rome, crowds will not assemble in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope will lead no Mass, and revelers will not make their yearly dive into the Tiber.
The New Year’s Eve ball will drop on Broadway. But in place of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers packed shoulder-to-shoulder into Times Square, the audience will be a small pre-selected group of nurses, doctors, and other key workers, their families kept six feet apart in socially distanced pens.
With more than 1.7 million people dead and 82 million infected around the globe since last New Year’s Eve yet hope that new vaccines can help tame the pandemic this year’s end is like none other in memory. Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year’s Eve address as German chancellor, said as much.
“I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy. And never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope. I can only imagine how bitter it must feel for those mourning loved ones lost to corona or who are having to fight against the repercussions of an illness when the virus is disrupted and denied by some hopeless individuals,” says Merkel, 66, who said she would get vaccinated as soon as practicable.
Germany has banned the sale of fireworks to discourage the crowd. Authorities in Berlin said police would “punish violators consistently”.
In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic originated a year ago, thousands were expected to gather at popular landmarks across the city centre for the countdown to 2021. Some said they were being cautious, but weren’t particularly worried.
In Australia, where the Sydney Opera House fireworks are televised around the world as the first big visual display of the New Year, the movement has been restricted; gatherings banned and internal borders shut. Most people were barred from coming to Sydney’s downtown on Thursday night.
“What a hell of a year it’s been,” said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales State, which includes Sydney. “Hopefully 2021 will be easier on all of us.”