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Carnival parade in Düsseldorf with floats representing a 'coronavirus' and a 'carnival virus'
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gambarini

Can Germany keep its Carnival events small?

Silke Wünsch
August 28, 2020

It's a heated discussion in Cologne and Düsseldorf: Can Carnival take place despite COVID-19? Ahead of the first set of festivities set to launch on November 11, propositions are on the table to make it possible.

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Following German Health Minister Jens Spahn's statement that he could not imagine Carnival happening during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, fans of the festival celebrated in parts of Germany have been in an uproar. 

While the most renowned Carnival festivities take place in the spring with street parades and costumes, the Carnival season, known as a "session," actually begins every year on November 11. In the Rhineland region's so-called Carnival strongholds, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, this is normally underlined with a huge party — jam-packed pubs and tens of thousands of people celebrating on the streets.

Not an event known for social distancing

While small communities and Carnival clubs have already abandoned the idea of ​celebrating this session due to the challenge of planning security for such large events during the pandemic, the Rhenish strongholds are still trying to go ahead in some capacity. The region's entertainment industry, already particularly affected by the coronavirus crisis, actually depends on the Carnival.

Clubs, artists, agencies, event technicians, DJs, breweries, pubs, hotels and taxi drivers all usually get their share of the revenues generated by Carnival events held from from November 11 up to Ash Wednesday. In Cologne alone, the turnover in 2018 was of €600 million, according to calculations by the Boston Consulting Group and Cologne's University of Applied Sciences. If Carnival celebrations are canceled this year, many restaurateurs and artists are bound to go bankrupt. 

Masses of people celebrating carnival in Cologne in 2019
Cologne in 2019: Scenes like this one aren't expected this yearImage: picture-alliance/C. Hardt

That's why so much energy is being dedicated to going ahead with the Rhenish Carnival, despite the pandemic. The Carnival societies from Cologne, Düsseldorf and Aachen have presented their safety concepts to the North Rhine-Westphalia's Health Ministry. They are now being analyzed and a decision will be made as to what is possible or not, taking into account the latest developments in daily infections.

Searching for alternatives

Many creative ideas are already on the table. In Cologne for example, one suggestion is to replace the Rose Monday parade with a stationary "train" along which people can walk.

Other alternatives include window parties, live-streamed Carnival sessions, and smaller Carnival music concerts. The traditional association events, which usually have hundreds of people gathering in very small spaces, could take place as usual in large halls but with a smaller audience, as is currently allowed for other concerts in Germany.

In some cases, alternative concepts are already being implemented. For example, the Cologne Carnival society Kajuja, which promotes the next generation of Carnival artists by inviting young bands to perform on the major stages every year, has set up a digital platform for its funding application process. Bands send in videos to introduce themselves before they are presented to event organizers and booking agencies. "It is precisely at this time that we have to offer our artists a platform," says Kajuja president Sven Behnke.

No unruly partying this year

So for now people hope it will be possible to downscale the typically large, alcohol-fueled street events and have smaller gatherings at bars. 

If you ask Carnival fans in Cologne, many of them can imagine celebrating on a smaller scale and would be happy to see the Carnival become a little quieter again. Even pub owners are ready to compromise with a "small" carnival and to sacrifice some income.

Some pub owners say staying open will discourage large outdoor gatherings. "If the pubs don't open, people will come anyway and celebrate on the streets," says Lutz Nagrotzki, operator of a traditional Kölsch pub in Cologne. "You can't trace the contacts, which would be possible in a pub." He supports doing "something small" and applying the necessary safety precautions. 

Masked carnival reveller wears protective face mask at Venice Carniva
Double mask: Part of the Venice Carnival was already cancelled in February 2020 because of a coronavirus outbreakImage: Reuters/M. Silvestri

Carnival strongholds do not want to become virus hot spots

Neither the Ministry of Health nor the police, residents, Carnival clubs or bar owners want to welcome the masses who flock to the German Carnival metropolises just to get drunk.

November 11 could be a first test run for a coronavirus-safe Carnival. "Amid this crisis, the Cologne Carnival will show that small can be beautiful," says Horst Müller from the carnival artist agency Go / Alaaaf.

No carnival stronghold wants to present itself to the world as an uncontrolled virus hot spot in the middle of the pandemic.

A streamed street Carnival 

Other parts of the world already had to find solutions for their celebrations. The Caribbean Carnival, which dates back to the liberation from slavery, is traditionally celebrated during the summer. This year, all festivities were canceled — with dire financial consequences for those whose livelihood depends on the event.

A person in a colorful, extravagant costume, who is a performer from mas band Mahogany filmed in a studio in Kennington, London, ahead of the first Notting Hill virtual carnival
A virtual Notting Hill Carnival for 2020Image: picture-alliance/PA Wire/Y. Mok

The Caribbean community in London organizes every year the Notting Hill Carnival, usually attended by up to two million visitors. This year the celebration will be moved online on the last weekend of August. Dozens of DJs and so-called mas bands, dance groups wearing colorful costumes, were filmed in advance to allow the whole thing to be streamed online. The event's artistic director, Ansel Wong, wants to "come as close as possible to the experience of the street."

Meanwhile, Carnival in Brazil's São Paulo, which would normally take place in February 2021, has already been postponed by eight months, but it could be delayed further depending on the developments. Rio de Janeiro and Venice are likely to follow suit.

Translation: Elizabeth Grenier

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