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 Trafalfar Square will be barricaded off, as will Red Square in Moscow. In Rome, crowds will not assemble in St Peter’s Square, and revellers will not make their yearly dive into the Tiber.
The New Year’s Eve ball will drop on Broadway. But in place 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. Good riddance, 2020. Hello, 2021. 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.” Germany has banned the sale of fireworks to discourage crowds. Authorities in Berlin said police would “punish violators consistently”.
In Australia, where the Sydney Opera House fireworks are televised around the world as the first big visual display of the new year, 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.”
In Madrid’s usually teeming Puerta del Sol square, there will be no revellers stuffing grapes into their mouths – one for every stroke of midnight, according to tradition. In Britain, where a highly contagious virus variant is rampaging, official billboards instruct the public to “see in the New Year safely at home”. Barriers were erected in public places such as London’s Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. In France, where a night curfew will also be in force, no more than six adults are allowed to gather around the dinner table. But there will be celebrations – small but with style. “I will stuff myself with foie gras and champagne,” a Parisian said. “And I’ll stay home.”