New Year's Eve rocks on in NYC despite nearly empty Times Square

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Usually a million people pack Times Square on New Year's Eve, but 2020 is not a usual year.

There weren't any of the normal crowds at the Crossroads of the World Thursday night due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Mayor Bill de Blasio -- who was on stage to watch the ball drop -- offered a remarkably upbeat prediction for the event that ends a universally panned year.

Times Square, he said, would be "magical," "joyous," "exceptional," "wonderful," and "amazing," and the mayor vowed it will singlehandedly unite the country into the new year.

"In a country, in a city that sometimes could use some more unity, one thing that unifies us all as Americans, we want to get the hell rid of 2020," he said. "I think it's going to be an amazing moment."

For the first time in history, the ball dropped without the general public there to watch in person.

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The event's special guests included 39 families of first responders and essential workers, but they didn't join the mayor on stage to lead the countdown. Instead, each guest watched from a private, well-spaced area.

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 in Times Square.

The blocks surrounding the ball drop were blocked off, leaving a scene that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea described as "surreal."

The NYPD says that since there's no spectators allowed, they've reduced the number of cops normally there by 80%.

However, that still means hundreds of police officers in Times Square were moving people along, making sure nobody stops to try and sneak a peek.

"We always have to prepare for the worst in terms of counterterrorism overlays," Shea said, "but the crowds will not be like they were in other years."

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Jennifer Lopez headlined "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" on ABC, and Billy Porter -- who pulled double duty as a host -- reunited with Cyndi Lauper for a duet performance.

The two previously collaborated on the Broadway hit "Kinky Boots," for which Lauper wrote music. Machine Gun Kelly and Jimmie Allen also performed in Times Square, and additional performers included Nelly, Miley Cyrus, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Maluma, Ella Mai, Lewis Capaldi and Brandy.

Both police and city officials had urged residents to stay home and watch the festivities on TV.

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"If you think you're going to be able to stand there and watch the ball, you're mistaken," Chief of Department Terence Monahan said. "Don't come. Watch it on home. It'll be a spectacular television show. Next year, we'll all gather together and we'll fill Times Square. But this year, don't even attempt to come down there to watch it."

And after the ball dropped, the wishes of health and happiness in the year ahead carried extra meaning, because hindsight is truly 2020.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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