New Year’s Eve yesterday was being celebrated like no other, with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they would prefer to forget.
Australia was among the first nations to ring in the new year.
It was a grim end to the year for New South Wales and Victoria, the nation’s two most populous states, which were battling to curb new COVID-19 outbreaks.
In past years, 1 million people crowded Sydney Harbour to watch fireworks that center on the famous bridge, but most were watching on TV as authorities urged residents to stay home.
Locations on the harbor were 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 had a restaurant reservation or were one of five guests of an inner-city resident. Some harborside restaurants were charging up to A$1,690 (US$1,305) for a seat, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday.
New Zealand, two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors have no COVID-19 cases and New Year celebrations were the same as ever.
Beijing was holding a countdown ceremony with just a few invited guests, while other planned events were canceled.
Temperatures plunging to minus-15°C also discouraged people from spending the night out with friends.
Hong Kong, with its British colonial history and large expatriate population, usually hosts raucous celebrations along the waterfront and in bar districts, but for the second consecutive year, New Year’s Eve fireworks were canceled, this time due to COVID-19 rather than public security concerns.
Hong Kong social distancing regulations restrict gatherings to only two people and restaurants had to close by 6pm.
Much of Japan also welcomed the new year quietly at home, alarmed after Tokyo reported a record number of daily COVID-19 cases. It was the first time that daily cases in the capital topped 1,000.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked people to skip countdown ceremonies and expressed concern about crowds of shoppers.
“The coronavirus knows no year-end or New Year’s holidays,” she told reporters.
Many people skipped what customarily has been a chance to return to ancestral homes for the holidays, hoping to lessen health risks for extended families.
Business at rural restaurants dropped, while home deliveries of traditional New Year’s “good luck” food — osechi — boomed.
Japanese 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 canceled.
The Meiji Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which normally attracts millions of people during the holidays and is usually open all night on New Year’s Eve, closed at 4pm.
In South Korea, the Seoul City Government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood 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 the sunrise at several beaches live on its YouTube channel.
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