Confetti falls on a deserted Times Square as New York forges ahead.

The minute before midnight in Times Square was almost unrecognizable as New York City closed out one of the most difficult and wrenching years in its history.

This time there were dozens — not hundreds of thousands — of voices counting down from 10 seconds. Confetti still rained down, but the multicolored strips landed primarily on the pavement rather than people’s shoulders. Instead of a steady rumble of cheers and screams, there were infrequent cries of happiness amid the booms of fireworks.

But the muted celebration did not ruin the palpable excitement of visitors in the area.

Alexis Hurley of Hell’s Kitchen grew emotional on a nearby street as midnight approached. “This has honestly been the worst year of my life and a lot of my friends’ lives,” Ms. Hurley said. “It’s just this relief and hope that things will get better.”

In the hour before 2021 started on the East Coast, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez and Andra Day were announced to the stage at Times Square to relative silence. Outside a nearby hotel where performances could be spotted on a digital screen, small clusters of about 70 people total were gathered to catch a glimpse of the acts.

Beth Calve, 60, and her daughter, Lily, were among the crowd and debating whether to brace for the frigid temperatures until the ball dropped. They ultimately chose to stay.

In a typical year, Ms. Calve said, the two would be building gingerbread houses and playing games at their home in New Jersey. But this time, because of the smaller crowds, they decided to spend the evening near Times Square. (The two had tried to persuade officers to let them past the entrance to no avail.)

“I just want Covid to finally be over,” she said. “I don’t even know what else I’m hoping for. It’s just that.”

Blocks from Times Square, streets were filled with energy as New Yorkers and tourists carried silver and gold balloons. A crowd around one saxophone player threw sparklers onto the ground; farther down the street, people danced to “Raise Your Glass” by Pink. The end of a year as dark as 2020 merited a celebration.

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