Party like it’s 2019: Serbia hosts raucous New Year’s Eve

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Women dance on the Belgrade’s main pedestrian street in front of brass band prior a New Year’s Eve, Serbia, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. As the fast-spreading coronavirus variant omicron rages through Western Europe, officials and experts in low-vaccinated Eastern Europe anticipate a post-holiday explosion of COVID-19 cases in much of the region. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Boisterous New Year’s Eve celebrations kicked off Friday in the Serbian capital of Belgrade where, unlike elsewhere in Europe, mass gatherings were allowed despite fears of the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Large crowds gathered in the city for outdoor concerts, fireworks and a light show at a newly-constructed Dubai-style glass tower that has become a trademark project by Serbia’s right-wing populist government.

With its numerous nightclubs and bars and relatively low prices, Belgrade has become a major attraction for mostly young partygoers coming in from neighboring Balkan states. Serbia’s state RTS television reported that about 100,000 visitors have flocked to Belgrade for the holidays, filling up the city’s hotels and rented apartments. Restaurants and bars have been packed.

Belgrade deputy mayor Goran Vesic said he’s proud of the thousands out on the streets for this New Year’s Eve, saying the Serbian capital “tonight is the center of Europe.”

Serbian officials have ignored warnings by medical experts, who say that mass festivities should be scrapped as long as omicron is racing through the continent. Most European nations have imposed restrictions and banned New Year’s celebrations to try to contain the virus that has fueled record numbers of new infections.

Serbian epidemiologist Zoran Radovanovic, meanwhile, compared the state-sponsored gatherings to “premeditated mass murder.” Radovanovic predicted that Serbia will see thousands of new COVID-19 infections after the holidays.

In a bid to stave off concerns, Belgrade city authorities provided 50,000 face masks and had rapid virus test sites and disinfection tools at the entrances to fenced-in areas for the New Year’s Eve concerts. But the COVID-19 vaccination passes that are required for bars and restaurants are not mandatory for outdoor events in Serbia.

“We plan to stroll around and attend the concert,” said Vesna Svilar, who lives in Denmark and came to her native country for the holidays. Svilar added she is not afraid because “we have face masks, we are vaccinated.”

Others had no fears about of getting infected.

“Why would I be afraid? We must live our lives,” said a Belgrade resident who gave only her first name, Zeljka. “I am not even vaccinated, but I don’t think about (COVID-19) at all. People die every day anyway.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Serbia, a nation of about 7 million, has registered nearly 1.3 million cases and seen 12,714 people die from COVID-19. Currently, COVID-19 passes detailing a person’s vaccination status are mandatory in bars and restaurants, but only in the evening.

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