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Major cities ring in a muted New Year’s amid global pandemic

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — This New Year’s Eve is being celebrated like no other in most of the world, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget with made-for-TV fireworks displays or packing it in early since they could not toast the end of 2020 in the presence of friends or carousing strangers.

As midnight struck across Asia and the South Pacific and rolled towards the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas, the New Year’s experience mirrored national responses to the virus itself. Some canceled or scaled back festivities, while others without active outbreaks were able to carry on like any other year.

Australia was among the first to ring in 2021. In past years 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks. This time, most watched on television as authorities urged residents to stay home to see the seven minutes of pyrotechnics that lit up the Sydney Harbor Bridge and its surroundings.

Melbourne, Australia’s second-most populated city, called off its annual fireworks show to discourage crowds. Officials in London made the same decision. And while the ball was set to drop in New York’s Times Square like always, police fenced off the site synonymous with New Year’s Eve.

READ MORE: How the pandemic is shaping our 2021 resolutions — and what experts want you to keep in mind

Another of the world’s most popular places to be on December 31, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, pressed ahead with its revelry despite a surge of infections. Images of masked health care workers briefly lit up Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, before fireworks exploded in the sky over the building. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets. Squares marked out for social distancing were largely ignored.

Despite the celebrations, the pandemic robbed the night of its freewheeling spirit. Authorities implemented a raft of anti-virus measures to control rowdy crowds in downtown Dubai. At luxury bars and restaurants, music blared and people drank, but dancing was strictly prohibited.

For some, the virus restrictions spoiled the fun.

“People come to Dubai because it’s open, but there are so many rules,” said Bashir Shehu, 50, who was visiting from Nigeria with his family. “We pray that next year we can celebrate with some real freedom.”

South Africans were urged to cancel parties and light candles to honor health workers and people who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many European countries, authorities warned they were ready to clamp down on revelers breaching public health rules, including nightly curfews in France, Italy, Turkey, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Greece.

“No one will be on the streets after 10 p.m. (Athens) will be a dead city to make sure no more restrictions are imposed,” said Greece’s public order minister, Michalis Chrisohoidis.

France’s government flooded the streets with 100,000 law enforcement officers to enforce the nationwide curfew.

A few families gathered in Madrid’s sunny central Puerta de Sol square to listen to the rehearsal of the traditional ringing of the bells that is held at midnight. They followed the Spanish custom of eating 12 grapes with each stroke of the bells before police cleared the area that normally hosts thousands of revelers.

The British government, juggling the twin occasions of New Year’s Eve and the U.K.’s definitive split from the EU, ran ads imploring the public to “see in the New Year safely at home.” Most of England’s population is under tight restrictions prohibiting the mixing of households and shutting pubs and restaurants.

In Scotland, which prides itself on Dec. 31 Hogmanay celebrations, the government detailed what it expected not to see.

“We must mark this New Year responsibly and in line with the restrictions,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said. “To be clear, and I take no pleasure in saying this, that means no gatherings, no house parties, no first-footing. Instead, we should bring in 2021 in our own homes with just our own households.”

Many around the world looked toward 2021 with hope, partly due to the arrival of vaccines that offer a chance of beating the pandemic.

“Goodbye, 2020. Here comes something better: 2021,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

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While there won’t be crowds in Times Square, the mayor pledged that the city, which has recorded over 25,000 deaths from the virus, would rebound next year.

“We are turning the page and going someplace better,” De Blasio said.

In Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, where official fireworks and celebrations also were canceled to limit the rapid spread of the virus, police officers braced for what promised to be a long night.

Rio officials decided to seal off Copacabana, where millions of people dressed in white usually gather on the beach to marvel at fireworks and attend large concerts. This year, between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, only local residents will be able to access the city’s iconic shore, authorities said.

In South Korea, Seoul’s city government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.

New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors that also have no active COVID-19 cases held their usual New Year’s activities.

In Chinese societies, the virus ensured more muted celebrations of the solar New Year, which is less widely observed than the Lunar New Year that in 2021 will fall in February. Initial reports about a mystery respiratory illness sickening people in the Chinese city of Wuhan emerged exactly a year ago.

Millions of Indians ushered in the new year with subdued celebrations at home because of night curfews, a ban on beach parties and restrictions on movement in major cities and towns after the new, more contagious variant of the virus reached the country.

Jordans reported from Bonn, Germany and Gatopoulos from Athens, Greece. AP reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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