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New York City is pressing ahead with Times Square New Year’s bash despite omicron surge

Confetti rains on a mostly empty Times Square for New Year’s Eve last year. (Corey Sipkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Times Square’s last New Year’s Eve before the pandemic was a rollicking affair. A million people packed in, hugging and locking lips, all blissfully unaware that a virus would soon devastate their city and shut down the world.

One year later, the ball still dropped, but the mood was muted. Times Square was closed to the public, and only a few dozen health-care workers attended as special guests, with the country battling a punishing winter wave of infections.

This year, the coronavirus is still with us — and is spreading at a record rate. But New York City’s leaders are pushing ahead with plans for a New Year’s Eve party despite the skyrocketing infections due mostly to the omicron variant, telling residents the annual event will serve as a symbol of progress for a place that has suffered severely during the past two years.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show. “It’s really important to not give up in the face of this.”

But Times Square will hardly be back to normal when revelers gather there Friday.

De Blasio, whose term ends with the year, had already announced that the celebrations would be scaled back from the “full-strength” jamboree he originally envisioned. Instead, attendees must show proof of vaccination to enter designated viewing areas outside. The crowds there will be limited to 15,000, and everyone who enters must wear a mask.

“Our health-care leadership believes this is the right way to do it,” de Blasio said, adding that there have been no discussions in his administration about canceling or scaling the event back even further.

Leaders urge Americans to cancel New Year’s plans: ‘Omicron and delta are coming to your party’

But the numbers do not look good.

The city, state and country are all breaking records for newly confirmed infections. New York state has set a new high in the average number of daily reported cases for the last 11 days. On Thursday, the number stood at nearly 48,500, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

More than 7,700 New Yorkers are hospitalized with the virus — which ranks eighth in the United States when adjusted for population — and the number is increasing rapidly.

Some experts and local officials have pointed to these trends as evidence that the city should cancel the New Year’s celebration, arguing that encouraging a mass gathering is irresponsible.

Mark Levine, a city councilor and incoming Manhattan borough president, has called for the Times Square event to be scrapped and said officials should discourage private in-person parties.

“We are not doing enough to slow this,” he said on Twitter. “Now is the time to act. Time is of the essence.”

The riskiest part of the evening won’t be the outdoor festivities, said Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, about two miles from Times Square. Rather, what concerns her most is the constellation of watch parties and after-parties at bars and restaurants across the city.

“That’s where the real risk is,” Gounder said in an interview. “It’s all the other activities. If all you do is stand in Times Square, watch the ball drop and go home, you’re actually probably at much lower risk of getting an omicron infection than somebody who is indoors at a party or at the bars.”

Generally speaking, socially distanced outdoor events — especially those that require proof of vaccination upon entry — are relatively low-risk, Gounder said. It’s still unclear if, or to what extent, omicron changes that, she said, but it’s possible that it does, given that the variant has proved to be more transmissible than its predecessors.

The entire health-care system is already extraordinarily strained, Gounder said, and she’s seen it firsthand at her hospital, where scores of doctors, nurses and case workers are out sick. Any additional spike in patients from New Year’s or other holiday celebrations could leave facilities dangerously understaffed.

“It’s not just first responders,” she said. “This goes throughout the system.”

The city’s police force, for instance, is missing more than a fifth of its officers due to virus infections, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said Thursday, and fire officials experiencing an influx of 911 requests and major staffing shortages implored residents to call only in a real emergency.

“Pretty unreal to me that NYC is still holding its big New Year’s Eve bash tomorrow when covid cases are higher than ever, hospitals are having to call in visiting help & cancel elective surgeries, and FDNY is pleading with the public not to call 911,” tweeted Kelly Doran, an emergency physician with NYU Langone.

Other large U.S. cities, notably San Francisco and Atlanta, have canceled their events, along with many of Europe’s most populous capitals — London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. And Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief medical adviser, has advised people to avoid large parties.

But de Blasio has remained adamant.

“We’ve got to send a message to the world,” he said on “Today.” “New York City is open.”