By Michael R. Sisak
Revelers will still ring in the new year in New York's Times Square next week, there just won't be as many of them as usual under new restrictions announced Thursday as the city grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Viewing areas that normally accommodate about 58,000 people will be limited to about 15,000 to allow for more distancing, and everyone in attendance must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news release announcing the changes.
“There is a lot to celebrate and these additional safety measures will keep the fully vaccinated crowd safe and healthy as we ring in the New Year," de Blasio said, noting the city's success in getting residents vaccinated while also keeping businesses open.
The added precautions for New Year's Eve in Times Square were spurred by the rapid spread of the omicron variant in the Big Apple, where lines for testing have snaked around blocks in recent days.
On Tuesday, the city set a one-day record with 17,200 new cases, though a true comparison to the number of cases during the initial COVID-19 surge in spring 2020 is impossible because tests were very limited at the time.
Because of vaccinations, hospitalizations and deaths from the current surge are far fewer than at the pandemic’s height.
The new wave of cases has led to the cancellation of concerts, sporting events and Broadway shows, but de Blasio has shown a strong preference for having the annual Times Square ball drop go on as planned — the last major event of his eight-year tenure, which ends Jan. 1.
Little more than a month ago, de Blasio gleefully announced that a fully vaccinated crowd of hundreds of thousands of people would be back at the iconic celebration — donning goofy 2022-themed glasses and watching a crystal-clad ball drop at midnight — after it was limited last year to small groups of essential workers.
But that was before omicron caught fire, forcing city officials and event organizers to rethink just how many people they wanted to squeeze into the bright, billboard-lined tourist haven known to some as the Crossroads of the World.
On Tuesday, the Fox network gave its verdict, pulling the plug on a planned live broadcast from the New Year's Eve event. Other networks plan to air the festivities, including Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC, the stalwart now hosted by Ryan Seacrest.
De Blasio said along with Thursday's announcement that the city is monitoring the COVID-19 situation and could impose additional precautions if needed. Among the other changes announced Thursday, revelers won't be allowed into viewing areas until 3 p.m., much later than in past years.
On New Year's Eve last year, Times Square was mostly empty, with Jennifer Lopez and other artists performing behind police barricades. After vaccines became widely available in the U.S., the city allowed crowds back to the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and other events.
“New York is the best place in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve and now it will be one of the safest against COVID as well,” Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a written statement endorsing the new precautions. “New Yorkers and visitors alike can now enjoy Times Square and the rest of our city as we ring in 2022.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.
Updated on December 23, 2021, at 4:03 p.m. ET with additional details.