Christmas Eve Flights Canceled, Times Square Celebration Scaled Back Amid Omicron
New York City will scale back the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration as the Omicron variant spreads, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday, the same day New York state reported its highest recorded daily coronavirus case total ever.
The mayor added that officials were still monitoring the situation and could take additional precautions in the coming days, if needed.
As of now, attendees will be required to show proof of full vaccination and wear masks. Fewer people — 15,000, instead of the usual 58,000 — will be allowed in designated viewing areas, to make social distancing more possible. Visitors will not be allowed in until about 3 p.m., later than past years.
The number of cases in the city reported over the past week is the highest since the start of the pandemic, though testing was severely limited in its early days.
Nearly 39,000 new cases were reported statewide on Thursday, about 10,000 more than on Wednesday, with nearly 23,000 of them in New York City. More than 60 percent of cases reported by New York State to the genetic tracking database GISAID in the last two weeks were of the Omicron variant, according to the governor’s office.
The city’s seven-day average test positivity rate was 11 percent as of Tuesday, and there were hourslong waits for tests at many sites around the city.
Also, Thursday the band Phish, which regularly plays New Year’s Eve concerts at Madison Square Garden, postponed its upcoming run of shows, including a three-set performance originally planned for New Year’s Eve.
A short while before making the Times Square announcement, at an unrelated event in Park Slope, Mr. de Blasio insisted that the rise in virus cases would subside soon and that shutdowns were not necessary. He said the city’s strategy of incentivizing vaccines and boosters and implementing strict vaccine mandates would suffice.
“It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but it will only be a few weeks,” he said, adding, “We are not falling back. We’re going to fight our way through this.”
Health experts were divided about the New Year’s Eve decision. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health, said that he did not 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 whose risk we’re still really understanding, and I don’t think we want to let it amplify,” he said.
He added that he was concerned that people visiting New York from other states and countries could pick up the variant and bring it home with them.
“Since New York is a global city and connected to everywhere, we have to be thinking about those places too,” Dr. Nash said.
But Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said that he was “really pleased” that the mayor chose not to cancel, noting the vaccine mandate and adding that the virus generally does not transmit efficiently outdoors.
“The whole country watches this, so I think psychologically it’s very important for the country to have a sense that we can do these things again and that we can do them safely,” Dr. Jha said.
The city said Thursday that spectators over 5 years old must have received both doses, if applicable, of an F.D.A. or World Health Organization-approved vaccine at least 14 days before Dec. 31.
The ball drop will take place on Mr. de Blasio’s last day in office, marking the end of his eight-year tenure. Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. de Blasio “made the right move 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 15,000 number referred specifically to people who would be allowed into viewing pens. The pens will be reduced in number and will only be filled to about 25 percent capacity, he said.
A greater number of people generally watch the ball drop from the surrounding area, including from hotels, restaurants and office buildings.
“We’re really excited about welcoming revelers back,” he said. “Safety is our priority and we feel an outdoor event with fully vaccinated, masked people in a less dense environment is about as safe as we could get.”
Grace Ashford contributed reporting.