2020 finally ending, but New Year’s revelries muted by virus

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) — This New Year’s Eve was celebrated like no other, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.

Australia was among the first nations to ring in 2021 because of its proximity to the International Date Line. It was a grim end to the year for New South Wales and Victoria, the country’s two most populous states, which are battling to curb new COVID-19 outbreaks.

In past years, one million people crowded Sydney’s harbour to watch fireworks that centre on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but most watched on television as authorities urged residents to stay home.

Locations on the harbour are fenced off, popular parks closed and famous night spots eerily deserted. A 9pm fireworks display was scrapped but there was a seven-minute pyrotechnics show at midnight.

People were only allowed in downtown Sydney if they have a restaurant reservation or are one of five guests of an inner-city resident. People won’t be allowed in the city centre without a permit.

Some harbourside restaurants were charging up to AUD1,690 (USD1,294) for a seat, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Sydney is Australia’s most populous city and has had its most active local transmission of the coronavirus in recent weeks.

A sign adorns a security fence near the harbour foreshore ahead of New Years Eve in Sydney, Australia. PHOTOS: AP
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Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city, has cancelled its fireworks this year. “For the first time in many, many years we made the big decision, difficult decision to cancel the fireworks,” Mayor Sally Capp said.

“We did that because we know that it attracts up to 450,000 people into the city for one moment at midnight to enjoy a spectacular display and music. We are not doing that this year.”

In notable contrast, the west coast city of Perth — which has not had community spread of the virus since April – celebrated the new year almost normally with large crowds watching two fireworks spectacles.

New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbours have no COVID-19 cases, and New Year celebrations there were the same as ever.

In Chinese societies, the Lunar New Year celebration that falls in February in 2021 generally takes precedence over the solar New Year, on January 1. While celebrations of the Western holiday have been growing more common in recent decades, this year will be more muted.

Beijing held a countdown ceremony with just a few invited guests, while other planned events were cancelled. And nighttime temperatures plunging to -15 degree Celsius will likely discouraged people from spending the night out with friends.

Hong Kong, with its British colonial history and large expatriate population, has usually seen raucous celebrations along the waterfront. For the second year running, however, New Year’s Eve fireworks were cancelled, this time over coronavirus rather than public security concerns.

Hong Kong social distancing regulations restrict gatherings to only two people. Restaurants have to close by 6pm. Live performances and dancing are not allowed. But crowds still throng shopping centres.

Much of Japan welcomed 2021 quietly at home, alarmed after Tokyo reported a record number of daily coronavirus cases at about 1,300. It was the first time that daily cases in the capital have topped 1,000.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked people to skip countdown ceremonies and expressed concern about crowds of shoppers.

“The coronavirus knows no yearend or New Year’s holidays,” she told reporters.

Many people skipped what’s customarily a chance to return to ancestral homes for the holidays, hoping to lessen health risks for extended families.

Rural restaurants saw business drop, while home deliveries of traditional New Year’s “good luck” food called “osechi” boomed.

Emperor Naruhito delivered a video message for the new year, instead of waving from a balcony with the imperial family as cheering crowds throng outside the palace.

Train services that usually carry people on shrine visits overnight, as well as some countdown ceremonies, were cancelled.

Meiji Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which normally attracts millions of people during New Year holidays and is usually open all night on New Year’s Eve, closed at 4pm this year.

In South Korea, Seoul’s city government cancelled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighbourhood for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.

The ceremony, in which citizens ring a large bell in a traditional pavilion when the clock strikes midnight, normally draws an estimated 100,000 people and is broadcast live.

Authorities in eastern coastal areas closed beaches and other spots where hundreds of thousands of people typically gather on New Year’s Day to watch the sunrise. The southeastern city of Pohang instead planned to broadcast live the sunrise at several beaches on its YouTube channel.

South Korea’s central government banned private social gatherings of more than five people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide from December 24 until January 3 to help bring a recent viral resurgence under control.

Millions of Indians ushered in the new year with subdued celebrations at home because of night curfews, a ban on beach parties and restrictions on movement in major cities and towns after the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus reached the country.

In New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, hotels and eateries were ordered to shut at 11pm. The three cities have been the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Drones kept watch on people’s movements in Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital.

Large gatherings were banned, but there were no restrictions on visiting friends, relatives and public places in groups of not more than four people, police said. Face masks and social distancing were mandatory, they said.

Many revelers flocked to Goa, a former Portuguese colony and popular backpacking destination with numerous beach resorts. Authorities decided against imposing a curfew with coronavirus infections largely controlled there.

In Sri Lanka, public gatherings have been banned due to a resurgence of COVID-19, and health and law enforcement authorities urged people to limit celebrations to close family members. Health officials have warned of legal action against hotels and restaurants that hold parties.

Officials have also closed schools and restricted public transport in response to the renewed outbreak.