By Gabriella Borter and Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hundreds of tourists, some wrapped in raincoats, clustered in a rainy Times Square on Monday afternoon to await the midnight descent of the illuminated ball that has marked the arrival of the new year in New York City for more than a century.
Christina Aguilera, New Kids on the Block and Sting were among the musical performers slated to entertain throngs filling the streets ahead of the ball drop, the focal point of New Year’s Eve celebrations across the United States. Steady rain was forecast in New York City into the new year.
This year, the Times Square Alliance, which promotes local businesses and organizes the event, has chosen to honor press freedom after a year in which journalists and media organizations have come under attack around the world, with U.S. President Donald Trump often decrying some reporters as “the enemy of the people.”
A minute before midnight, journalists – including NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, an ABC News reporter and the Washington Post’s opinion editor – will join Mayor Bill de Blasio in pushing the button to initiate the ball drop.
Visitors were already gathered in groups, some chatting, others napping on piles of coats, ahead of an hours-long marathon of standing in roughly one place, with no access to public restrooms. Despite the rain, many said their spirits would not be dampened.
“It was a bucket-list thing,” said Daniela Ramous, a 34-year-old sales manager from McAllen, Texas. “You grow up watching it on TV, you see all the excitement. There’s something magical about New York during this time of year.”
By 7 a.m. (1200 GMT) police had already lined Times Square with barricades, assembling the temporary corrals where revelers will be confined for the festivities. The National Weather Service was forecasting a low of 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 Celsius) and heavy rain from midafternoon to early morning.
Umbrellas were banned amid tight security, police said, reflecting concern over the possibility of random attacks. That did not faze the huddled masses in Times Square.
“My boyfriend’s coming and he’s bringing us garbage bags, so we’ll put those over ourselves,” said 21-year-old Annika Clary, a dancer from Vancouver, Canada, who was counting down to 2019 with her sister. Plastic ponchos were allowed, with street vendors selling them for $5 on nearby avenues.
The tradition of watching a giant ball drop from a pole on top of the narrow building at the crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan began in 1907.
James and Sharon Knox, 62 and 61, traveled to Times Square from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after watching the ball drop on television for decades and always saying they would go the next year.
“Next year came, next year came, and finally this year it did happen,” said James Knox, who retired from R.J. Renolds Tobacco Co. “It’s probably been a 25-year ‘next year’ thing, but we got it.”
The current ball, in use since 2008, is a glittering, LED-studded sphere made by Waterford Crystal and Philips Lighting. Weighing 11,875 pounds (5,386 kg) and measuring 12 feet (3.7 meters) in diameter, it sits year-round on the roof of One Times Square, the one-time headquarters of the New York Times at the head of the blocks-long plaza.
The New York Police Department was screening people entering the corrals, deploying sharpshooters on rooftops and will use radiation detectors throughout the event. It will also use an aerial drone for the first time to monitor the crowds. Manhole covers will be sealed up in case anyone is tempted to use the sewers to sidestep security.
The Times Square Alliance chose to honor press freedom and the contribution of journalists partly due to the deadly hostility that some reporters have faced this year. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post and U.S. resident, was killed inside a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. In June, a gunman shot dead five employees of The Capital, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.
This month also marked the first anniversary of the imprisonment in Myanmar of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for investigating how the country’s security forces killed members of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty)