RIO DE JANEIRO – The pandemic may have disrupted Carnival plans in Rio de Janeiro for a second straight year, but revelers who have flocked to the Brazilian city for sun, sea and samba still found ways to party on Saturday.
Thousands defied an official ban on street parties by dancing, singing and mingling to the rhythm of Samba, sometimes as police looked on.
Others attended more formal events that moved indoors this year after City Hall banned “blocos,” the tightly packed street parties traditionally thronged by those who cannot or do not want to lay out for pricey tickets for the official parade at the Sambadrome — which this year has been postponed to April because Brazil is still not past the omicron wave.
“I think it’s a shame this has to happen this way,” said Tulio Brasil, a 29 year-old music marketing director who found one of the unauthorized street parties in the city center.
“It doesn’t make sense to crowd everyone into a closed place when the street, an open space, much more airy, is prohibited," he said.
The indoor parties — and the fee to get in — are a heresy for many Brazilians who say that Carnival's block parties are essentially and historically parties by the people and for the people.
“There is great hypocrisy about all this,” said Deivid Domênico, a samba composer linked to the Mangueira samba school. “In January, when the omicron wave was peaking, they didn’t take any public measures to limit the spread of the virus; bars and restaurants were still open. But they canceled Carnival.”
The city's decision to postpone Carnival has frustrated many professionals and creative types whose livelihoods center around one of the largest festivals in the world - especially since large gatherings in enclosed spaces have gone undisturbed.
“Stadiums are full, churches are full, evangelical temples, concerts, bars, restaurants, hotels, AirBnbs,” said Rita Fernandes, who leads an association of street blocos from the city's most touristic areas. “This seems quite contradictory, as if the virus only spread on the streets and at Carnival.”
Big crowds at concerts such as those held in the past few weeks by Brazil’s biggest pop star, Anitta, have puzzled Carnival organizers and revelers alike.
For many, paying to attend “blocos” in an enclosed place just doesn't feel right.
“Carnival here in Rio is a party for black people, it’s a party for “favelados” (residents of the city’s sprawling working class neighbourhoods), it’s a party for homosexuals, it’s a party where women are valued, where criticism is made and the government is satirized,” Domênico said. “Carnival has roots, Carnival has a history, an essence, which we cannot forget.”
Nearly all of Rio’s samba schools are closely linked to working class communities. Many of those who create Carnival, from costume makers to music composers, from samba schools to security and transport agencies, are feeling the financial hurt.
In February 2020, before the pandemic hit Brazil with full strength, more than 2 million tourists made the trip to Rio, generating 4 billion reais (then about $1 billion) — a record number, authorities said.
Only about 70,000 people can fit in the Sambadrome each night. Others can attend some of the city's 500 block parties held over a period of 45 to 60 days. Much of the appeal of street parties is the variety of themes: A ny costume, or no costume at all, is fine.
Then the pandemic hit and in 2021, mayors across the Latin America's largest nation were forced to cancel Carnival for the first time in a century. Authorities threatened legal action against those who defied the ban to party, so many groups turned to online events, streaming music and dances for their fans.
But this year, as parts of the world with high vaccination rates have gone back to some sort of normalcy, online events are no longer attractive. “People are tired of it,” said Fernandes, from the block parties association.
Indeed, tourists from abroad and across Brazil have turned up in numbers this year in spite of the virus. As of Feb. 24, hotels in Rio were at about 80% capacity, according to Rio's hotel association.
AP journalist Lucas Dumphreys contributed to this report.