Empty streets, eerie quiet mark start of 2021 in Times Square

Gone were the revelry and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that typify Times Square on New Year's Eve, replaced by empty streets and an eerie quiet as the final moments of 2020 ticked away.

This was New Year's Eve in the age of COVID-19.

Crowd control gave way to crowd prevention, as police closed the Crossroads of the World to vehicles and onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the glittering, crystal ball that still descended down a flagpole to mark the stroke of midnight. Would-be partygoers were urged to watch the ball drop on television.

Still, modest throngs of people gathered just outside the police perimeter, which took on the feel of a tailgate as midnight neared. Many said they wanted to end a challenging year on their own terms.

Small groups of revelers, some wearing glittery hats, filmed their distant view of Times Square on their phones and broke out in cheers at midnight. There were kisses and toasts, but police quickly broke up the crowds gathered along Broadway after the ball fell.

One reveler, Daniel Camacho, 36, of Manhattan, described the experience as "anticlimactic" given the small crowd.

"I’m just glad it’s over," he said of 2020.

Preparing for the worst, the New York Police Department deployed its bomb-sniffing dogs and sand-filled sanitation trucks intended to guard against explosions. But the department’s playbook included an unusual mandate this year: preventing crowds of any size from gathering at the spot of what is usually the nation’s biggest New Year’s Eve party.

Some celebrity performers took to stages set up in the mostly empty square to sing to a small group of masked essential workers. In the final minutes before midnight, Jennifer Lopez sang the Aerosmith classic "Dream On" beneath a blast of confetti.

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A brief burst of fireworks blasted and more confetti flew as the countdown hit midnight.

The coronavirus has upended public life for months, and New Year’s Eve proved no different for a city that’s counted over 25,000 deaths blamed on the virus. The blocks surrounding the ball drop were blocked off, leaving a scene that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea described as "surreal."

Even a group of National Guardsmen engaged in fighting the coronavirus since March was denied entry.

"It just would have been great to ring in 2021 the New York way," said Billy Merola, a Marine from Long Island.

The turning of the calendar, he said, "provides hope."

Others who passed through the area in the hours before midnight said the celebration was a melancholy one.

"It makes me a little bit sad," said Cole Zieser, who recently moved to New York City and was looking forward to "what everyone dreams about in New York."

Merchants in the area were also lamenting the lack of crowds.

"It’s dead," said Ali Jameel early Thursday, who owns a store a block from Times Square. "We are dreaming for it to come back again like before."

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The NYPD announced a two-part freeze that became more expansive at 3 p.m. Even guests at five hotels in the area were told to stay inside. Officials urged people to stay away.

"Coming to Times Square is a family tradition for some. It is a bucket list item for others. But this year is different," said the department's chief of patrol, Juanita Holmes. "I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for everyone to stay home."

The Police Department still rolled out heavy weapons teams, explosive-sniffing dogs, drones and sand trucks. But it also planned a drastically scaled-back presence, including an 80% reduction in its typical workforce assigned to the area.

Despite the restrictions, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed that New Year’s Eve "would be a joyous night, if ever there was one. Goodbye, 2020. Here comes something better: 2021."