New York — Gone are the bustling, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that characterize Times Square on New Year’s Eve, replaced by empty streets and eerie calm as the last moments of 2020 approach.
This was New Year’s Eve in the era of COVID-19.
Crowd control gave way to blocking crowds, as police closed the Crossroads of the World to vehicles and spectators hoping to catch a glimpse of the sparkling crystal ball still descending beneath the flagpole to celebrate the midnight stroke. Party-goers were urged to watch the ball fall on TV.
However, modest crowds of people gathered just outside the police perimeter, making it look like a back door as midnight approached. Many said they wanted to end a challenging year on their own terms.
Small groups of revelers, some in flashy hats, filmed their distant scenes of Times Square on their phones, and cheers erupted at midnight. There were kisses and toast, but the police quickly dispersed the crowds assembled along Broadway after the ball fell.
One reveler, Daniel Camacho, 36, of Manhattan, described the experience as “anticlimatic” given the small crowd.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he said of 2020.
In preparation for the worst, the NYPD has deployed bomb-sniffing dogs and sand-filled sanitation trucks designated for blast protection. But the department’s manual included an unusual mandate this year: Preventing crowds of any size from gathering somewhere that is usually the largest New Year’s Eve party in the country.
Some famous artists moved to stages set up in a mostly empty arena for a small group of masked essential workers. In the final minutes before midnight, Jennifer Lopez sang the Aerosmith classic “Dream On” under a blast of confetti.
A short series of fireworks exploded and more confetti flew as midnight approached the countdown.
The coronavirus has turned public life upside down for several months, and New Year’s Eve proved no different from a city with more than 25,000 deaths blamed on the virus. The blocks around the ball drop were blocked, leaving a scene that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea described as “surreal”.
Even a group of National Guardsmen who have been involved in the fight against the coronavirus since March have been denied entry.
“It was great to call in 2021 the New York way,” said Billy Merola, a Marine from Long Island.
He said the calendar shift “provides hope”.
Others who passed through the area hours before midnight said the celebration was sad.
“I feel a little sad,” said Cole Zeiser, who recently moved to New York City and was looking forward to “what everyone in New York dreams about.”
Traders in the area also lamented the lack of crowds.
He was dead, Ali Jamil said early Thursday. “We dream that it will be back again as before.”
The NYPD announced a two-part freeze that became even more extensive at 3 p.m., and guests at five hotels in the area were even told to stay indoors. Officials urged people to stay away.
“Coming to Times Square is a family tradition for some. It’s a bucket list item for others. But this year is different,” said the department’s head of patrol, Juanita Holmes. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for everyone to stay home.”
The Police Department continued to deploy heavy weapons teams, explosive-sniffing dogs, drones, and sand trucks. But it also planned to significantly reduce its presence, including an 80% reduction in its typical workforce assigned to the region.
Despite the restrictions, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed that New Year’s Eve “will be a good night, if any. Goodbye, 2020. Here comes something better: 2021.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Tom Hayes contributed to this report.