New York City will cut back on New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square as the Omicron variant spreads, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday, the same day that New York State reported its highest daily total of coronavirus cases ever recorded.
The mayor added that officials will continue to monitor the situation and may take additional precautions in the coming days if necessary.
From now on, participants must present a complete vaccination card and wear masks. Fewer people – 15,000 instead of the usual 58,000 – are allowed into designated viewing areas to facilitate social distancing. Later than in previous years, visitors will only be admitted at around 3 p.m.
The number of cases reported in the city last week is the highest since the pandemic began, although testing was severely limited in the early days.
Nearly 39,000 new cases were reported nationwide as of Thursday, about 10,000 more than on Wednesday, with nearly 23,000 of them in New York City. More than 60 percent of the cases that New York State reported to the GISAID genetic tracking database in the past two weeks involved the Omicron variant, according to the governor’s office.
The city’s seven-day average test positive rate was 11 percent on Tuesday, and many locations across the city had hours of waiting for tests.
The band Phish, who regularly play New Year’s Eve concerts at Madison Square Garden, also postponed their upcoming shows on Thursday, including a three-way performance originally planned for New Year’s Eve.
Right before the Times Square announcement, Mr. de Blasio insisted at an independent event in Park Slope that the surge in virus cases would soon subside and that shutdowns would not be required. He said the city’s strategy of incentivizing vaccines and boosters and enforcing strict vaccination regulations would be enough.
âIt’s going to be a tough couple of weeks, but it’s only going to be a couple of weeks,â he said, adding, âWe’re not falling behind. We’ll fight our way through there. “
Health experts disagreed over the New Year’s Eve decision. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health, said he didn’t think it was a good idea to hold the event.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic with a big surge of a new variant that we still really understand the risk of, and I think we don’t want to add to it,” he said.
He added that he was concerned that people visiting New York from other states and countries might pick up the variant and take it home with them.
“Since New York is a global city and connected everywhere, we need to think of these places too,” said Dr. Nash.
However, Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, said he was “delighted” the mayor’s decision not to cancel, noted the vaccination mandate, and added that the virus was generally in the open not transmitted efficiently.
“The whole country is watching this, so I think it is very important psychologically that the country feel that we can do these things again and that we can do them safely,” said Dr. Yeh.
The city said Thursday that viewers over 5 years of age must have received both doses of an FDA or World Health Organization-approved vaccine at least 14 days before December 31.
The ball drop takes place on the last day in Mr. de Blasio’s office, marking the end of his eight-year term. Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a statement Thursday that Mr. de Blasio has “taken the right steps to take precautionary measures as we learn to live with Covid and fight the Omicron variant”.
Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, said the number of 15,000 refers specifically to those allowed to look at pens. The stalls will be reduced in number and only about 25 percent full, he said.
A larger number of people typically watch the ball fall from the surrounding area, including hotels, restaurants, and office buildings.
“We are very happy to be able to welcome the night owls again,” he said. “Safety is our priority and we believe that an outdoor event with fully vaccinated, masked people in a less dense environment is as safe as we can get.”
Grace Ashford Reporting contributed.