In Rio, ban amid Omicron surge can’t keep revelers from Carnival streets

A smiling reveler at an unofficial carnival block party in Rio
A reveler smiles during an unofficial Carnival block party, or bloco, in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)
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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.

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The indoor parties — and the fee to get in — are a heresy for many Brazilians who say that Carnival’s open-air parties are essentially and historically by the people and for the people.

“There is great hypocrisy about all this,” said Deivid Domenico, 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 members of the arts community 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 touristy 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 last few weeks by Brazil’s biggest pop star, Anitta, have puzzled Carnival organizers and revelers alike.

For many, paying to attend a bloco 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 neighborhoods], it’s a party for homosexuals, it’s a party where women are valued, where criticism is made and the government is satirized,” Domenico 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 full strength, more than 2 million tourists made the trip to Rio, generating 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: Any costume, or no costume at all, is fine.

Then the pandemic hit, and in 2021, mayors across 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 on partying, so many groups turned to online events, streaming music and dances for fans in their own small gatherings.


But this year, as parts of the world with high vaccination rates have gone back to some sort of normality, 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 Thursday, hotels in Rio were at about 80% capacity, according to Rio’s hotel association.