As the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant looms across parts of the globe and the Delta variant remains dominant – for now – in others, the Covid-19 pandemic is again threatening holiday celebrations for millions.
Several European cities have already canceled firework displays ringing in 2022 and some countries are reimposing restrictions, while Chinese families face the prospect of their third Lunar New Year spent apart.
The Lunar New Year – which begins on February 1, 2022 – is China’s biggest holiday, with millions of people traditionally crisscrossing the country to join loved ones for the festivities.
But those plans were upturned for many after China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Saturday announced travel restrictions, doubling down on its “zero-Covid” strategy ahead of the Beijing Olympics happening the same month.
It urged residents in any city with confirmed Covid-19 cases against traveling during the upcoming New Year and Spring Festival holidays, amid an outbreak of infections in recent weeks.
The travel restrictions are a fresh blow for lockdown-weary Chinese families, who have endured some of the toughest – but most effective – rules in the world for more than a year.
It’s bad news too for the world’s second largest economy, still struggling with real estate woes and the fallout from sporadic lockdowns.
China’s “zero-Covid” strategy will be pushed to the limits when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics in February, as the country opens its doors to foreign athletes at the same time the Omicron variant will likely be surging in other parts of the globe.
The government in Beijing announced Friday that due to the upcoming holiday season and influx of foreign athletes, residents should avoid leaving the city during the Spring Festival, unless necessary.
Indeed the Omicron variant also comes just as many countries in the Asia-Pacific region with tough restrictions – including Australia and Japan – had tentatively started to loosen up and live with Covid-19.
Paris and Rome cancel New Year events
China isn’t the only country downscaling its festivities this year amid outbreaks.
The Netherlands is imposing a strict new lockdown, starting Sunday at 5 a.m., Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced in a televised press conference Saturday, according to CNN affiliate RTL News.
Indoor gatherings will be limited to a maximum of two guests until January 14, except on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when that will be extended to four guests, according to RTL News.
All schools and extracurricular activities will close until at least January 9, RTL reports.
Sports competitions will be halted, and all indoor sports venues will also be closed, Rutte said, according to RTL News, though children under 17 years of age will be able to continue playing sports until 5 p.m. Sunday.
France on Friday announced large outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve as the country faces its fifth wave of infections, warning that Omicron will become the dominant variant by early 2022.
Denmark has also proposed closing cinemas and theaters, and limiting the numbers of people in shops the week before Christmas, as it attempts to control a spike in cases.
And Rome is among several Italian cities that have decided to cancel New Year’s festivities over coronavirus concerns, authorities said Thursday.
The Campania region has also banned feasts and alcohol consumption in public areas from December 23 to January 1. Venice also canceled its open air concerts and New Year’s Eve fireworks.
Ireland will also introduce an 8:00 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars from Sunday, and limit numbers for both indoor and outdoor events, amid a surge in Omicron cases, it announced Friday.
China’s ‘zero-Covid’ strategy
Under China’s newly tightened measures, people from medium or high-risk areas are strictly prohibited from travel. Those on official duties, or working in the transportation sector, should obtain special permission and a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours, the NHC added.
The rules are slightly eased for residents in “low risk” districts. They are only advised not to travel during the holiday season, and are required to have a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours to leave the city.
As part of the designation, “medium risk” areas are those with less than 10 reported cases in the last two weeks. And “high risk” areas have more than 10 reported cases.
China currently has 12 “high risk” areas and 57 “medium risk” areas, NHC statistics showed Saturday.
China has fully vaccinated 1.186 billion people, accounting for 84% of its the population, NHC spokesperson Mi Feng said.
CNN’s Dalal Mawad and Livia Borghese contributed to this report