Preparing for a new year, many have a message for the old one: good riddance.

Last New Year’s Eve, a million strong crowd flooded Midtown Manhattan, kissing and cheering in the warm glow of 2020’s promise. This New Year’s Eve, just a few hundred will gather in Times Square — dozens of frontline workers among them — and only then by special invitation.

With temperatures checked and face masks secured, they will represent a nation holding a mirror to the lips of 2020 to confirm that there is no fogging, that the year has mercifully ceased to be.

But here is an existential question to ponder over your Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres and drink of choice: If a ball drops at midnight in Times Square and almost no one is present to see it, has a new year truly begun?

We have been conditioned to believe that with a clock’s tick on one particular midnight, a bent old man hands the baton of time to a sprightly cherub in a top hat. All the travails of 12 months end, and life begins anew.

If only.

“I’m more looking forward to burying 2020 than looking forward to 2021,” said Stephen Hughes, an assistant chief with the New York Police Department who is helping to supervise the night. “I just can’t wait not to see 2020 anymore.”

Juanita Erb, a clinical research nurse invited to attend this year’s Times Square celebration, agreed. But, she added: “The changing of the clock into 2021 is not going to make everything go away.”

But it is the pandemic that defined the year, with more than 340,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the country — an average of 930 every day, 39 every hour. And while the year also included the lightning-quick development of vaccines, most Americans will not be inoculated until well into 2021, meaning that deadly infections will continue.

At the Times Square gathering, the night’s touch of grace is in the invitation to a few dozen frontline workers and their families. Among them will be Ms. Erb, 44, a clinical research nurse who, for the last several months, has helped oversee trials for the Pfizer vaccine at the N.Y.U. Langone Vaccine Center.

Another of the invited guests is Danny Haro, 22, a community college student from Montclair, N.J., who delivers food for an Italian restaurant and provides security for a clothing store. He is among the unheralded whose work allows others to experience vague normality in a pandemic.

As the coronavirus crisis raged in early spring, the Villa Victoria Pizzeria in Montclair began donating pasta and salads to workers at nearby Mountainside Hospital, with Mr. Haro often delivering the food in his 2009 Ford Escape.

In early April, he tested positive for the virus. There came the fevers, the chest pains, the loss of smell — the long nights fearing he couldn’t breathe.

Mr. Haro is feeling much better now, and he says he expects 2021 to look a lot like 2020, at least in the beginning. He wishes, then, for one thing.

“Strength,” Mr. Haro said. “Just strength, honestly.”

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