New Year's Eve

NYC Scales Back Times Square New Year's Eve, New York Infections Up 35% in a Day

The development comes amid an unprecedented COVID-19 case surge sweeping the nation that has seen NYC spread rates soar to record levels

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What to Know

  • New Year's Eve in Times Square won't be the same triumphant emblem of pandemic recovery the mayor hoped it would when he announced weeks ago a fully vaccinated, "full strength" return in person
  • Skyrocketing increases -- unprecedented, day after day -- in COVID cases fueled by the omicron variant, many of them breakthrough infections, have forced some changes to the plan. More may change
  • As it stands, the city will still allow fully vaccinated people to attend but the audience will be almost four times smaller than it usually is. Masks will be required for all; proof of vaccination and photo ID are required

New York City has modified its plans for its fully vaccinated New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, limiting the crowd to roughly 15,000 people, nearly four times less than the non-pandemic crowd, and requiring masks for all amid an omicron surge that's spawning unprecedented increases in COVID infections.

As eye-popping as the numbers have been in recent days, Thursday afternoon's report from the state was still stunning -- 38,835 positive tests in just one day, an increase of 10,000 from the day before. Of those, 22,208 were in New York City alone, orders of magnitude greater than anything either the city or state faced before omicron (although a true comparison to the number of cases during the initial COVID surge in spring 2020 is impossible because tests were very limited at the time).

In simpler terms — in just the last week, roughly 1% of all New York City residents, and 1% of all New York state residents, have tested positive for COVID. Fortunately because of vaccinations, hospitalizations and deaths from the current surge are far fewer than at the pandemic’s height.

Against that backdrop, Mayor Bill de Blasio was under heavy pressure to do something about the city's New Year's Eve plans. The mayor said Thursday that viewing areas will be filled with fewer people to allow for social distancing.

NBC New York's Checkey Beckford reports.

Visitors will not be permitted entry until 3 p.m. on New Year's Eve, which is much later than prior years. Proof of full vaccination -- meaning the last dose of the regimen was at least 14 days before New Year's Eve -- with valid photo identification will remain required as the mayor had previously announced.

Attendees aged 5 and up must also present proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the event. Minors not yet eligible for vaccination can still attend the Times Square bash but must be accompanied by a vaccinated adult.

Anyone who can't get vaccinated because of a disability must provide proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the event as well. See more FAQs here.

More could change in the coming days, though, the mayor's office warned. The event is outdoors, of course, and for fully vaccinated people only, but omicron's stunning dominance over New York City in just the last few weeks means officials are allowing room for any additional changes if needed before next week.

"There is a lot to celebrate and these additional safety measures will keep the fully vaccinated crowd safe and healthy as we ring in the New Year," de Blasio said, noting the city's success in getting residents vaccinated while also keeping businesses open.

“New York is the best place in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve and now it will be one of the safest against COVID as well,” Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a written statement endorsing the new precautions. “New Yorkers and visitors alike can now enjoy Times Square and the rest of our city as we ring in 2022.”

At an earlier, unrelated event, a more exuberant de Blasio said for the third time in as many days that omicron would be a setback but not stall the city's progress.

"We are not shutting down. We are not falling back. We are going to fight our way through this," the mayor said at the event in Brooklyn -- and reminded people of the $100 cash his administration is offering to get boosted before the new year.

Shortly before, the mayor reported nearly 11,500 new COVID cases, a nearly 5% increase over numbers he described as "staggering" a day before. De Blasio added another 198 hospitalizations to the count; those rates, while up in recent weeks, have been manageable and far less jarring than the skyrocketing case numbers.

The development comes little more than a month after the outgoing mayor triumphantly declared fully vaccinated crowds could return to Times Square to celebrate New Year's Eve this year with no size limitations. It was a to be a moment to consummate what de Blasio described as the five boroughs' epic and ongoing recovery after unthinkable human and economic loss from the COVID-19 pandemic.

11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 marks the end of his mayoral run in New York City. The hope was that it would put a symbolic cap on the pandemic and unlike New Year's Eve 2020, allow New Yorkers and the world to truly look forward to a more hopeful 2022.

Source: CoVariants
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Once again, the ferocious tenacity of a virus that didn't even exist when de Blasio was reelected to overwhelm the globe again and again with its ability to mutate into more contagious or more severe strains (or both) has cramped those plans. The omicron variant caught fire, forcing city officials and event organizers to rethink just how many people they wanted to squeeze into the bright, billboard-lined tourist haven.

On Tuesday, the Fox network gave its verdict, pulling the plug on a planned live broadcast from the New Year's Eve event. Both the Broadway Association, which has seen iconic productions ravaged by breakthrough infections, and the Times Square Advertising Coalition on New Year's Eve in Times Square pleaded with the mayor Tuesday to let the show go on.

The organizations released a joint statement this week that read:

“At this moment, all eyes are on New York City and a festive, safe, vaccinated, and masked, outdoor celebration like New Year’s Eve in Times Square is exactly what we all need, now more than ever, to bid farewell and good riddance to 2021, as we look forward to celebrating a new year when we follow the science to remain open and safely welcome New Yorkers and visitors back to the Crossroads of the World.”

Last year’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square was a socially distanced affair, attended by small groups of essential workers. De Blasio said last month it would come back at "full strength" to ring in 2022. That won't be the case now.

Amid new concerns, the mayor called omicron a “fast, temporary phenomenon” that is expected to surge in the next few weeks then likely dissipate. He noted that most city residents are vaccinated, making the recent outbreak more manageable than when COVID-19 first appeared in early spring 2020.

That is still the case, but the surge is now. It's expected to be short-lived, perhaps a matter of weeks, but it comes at the height of the holiday season.

The city's rolling case weekly average is up nearly 139% over the averages for the prior four weeks, Thursday's data shows. Hospitalizations are up 20% in the same time period. Authorities have said the vast majority of those more severe cases are people who aren't vaccinated and urge all New Yorkers to get dosed and boosted.

Omicron has already usurped the delta variant as the most dominant COVID strain in the United States, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases last week, officials say.

In the New York area, the CDC estimates the variant's prevalence has topped 90%.

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