The challenges of staging Mardi Gras during Covid

The start of the 2022 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was marked with the raising of the Progress Pride Flag at Sydney Town Hall on Friday, 18 February. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

“Wild. Heartbreaking. Inconsistent.” What it’s like to put on a world renowned festival during a pandemic.

“It’s been a wild one,” Cass Looveer says through a breathy sigh and a laugh.

Those air expulsions reveal much about what it’s like in her role as Mardi Gras parade producer: she’s frazzled, yet upbeat. 

“The last 12 months have been so up and down,” she says. “After the last parade, like everyone, we thought we were coming out of this and then we went right back the other way. The [events] industry at large has ridden that wave together.”

Overseeing a relatively small team, Looveer is responsible for ensuring the major, world-renowned event is Covid safe, compliant with all NSW Health orders and in line with the LGBTQI community’s expectations; no small feat.

“The one constant is nothing’s constant!” she says. “We’re reassessing every inch of the event daily. That’s working in events at any time. This is events turned up to 11!”

This year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – which bears the theme ‘United We Shine’ – is going ahead with multiple events despite the challenges posed by the Omicron outbreak of Covid-19. Video: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras/YouTube.

Face masks won’t be required for those attending the parade, happening once again at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).

Right up until the recent lockdown, organisers were expecting to return to Oxford Street for the parade. The change has a big impact on numbers. For the SCG at capacity, 44,000 can view the parade, and 6,000 will perform in it. Traditionally, 220,000 people line Oxford Street to watch the parade, while around 12,000 march.

Concerns the SCG parade this Saturday, 5 March will be a so-called ‘superspreader’ event aren’t without merit, but, as Looveer says, this is the reality of living with Covid. 

“It’s the same way everything is in life at the moment – a game of chance; whether you’re in a busy section of the city, or in the parade.”

Being outdoors helps, but that doesn’t mean she’s being at all complacent – she has worked tirelessly to minimise the risk. 

“I’m really proud of how robust our Covid safety plan is and of our relationship with NSW Health.” 

She’s also got a great track record: “It’s comforting that we were able to keep people safe last year,” she says. 

A team of 2,000 will help her deliver a Covid safe event on the day, and Covid itself helped her team prompt for the additional resources which, she says, were overdue before the pandemic. 

There are boons to the SCG over Oxford Street: pyrotechnics and lighting are far superior, and the captive audience sees the same dance performances at the same time, unlike the 2km Oxford Street route. 

Whilst being an “unwitting expert in public health orders”, Looveer says staging such a major event – her third parade – during a pandemic has increased her agility and that of her team.

What keeps her upbeat and motivated on the harder days of such an ever-shifting climate?

“Mardi Gras could be the place you make that business deal that changes your life, where you meet your partner or when you finally understand you’re really not alone and can be yourself. Being the architect of those experiences and memories for people makes it more a passion project than a job,” she says.

Australian singer-songwriter and pop star Darren Hayes is headlining the Mardi Grad Parade on Saturday, 5 March at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which is going ahead despite the ongoing Omicron outbreak. Video: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras/YouTube.

“It’s still devastating. It still hurts”

Sadly, not all Mardi Gras events have made the final cut.

In addition to the Mardi Gras post-parade party being cancelled, Sissy Ball, a staple of recent years, has been removed from the festival – a casualty of pandemic related health orders – as have the Kaftana and Paradiso Pool Parties.

However, they have been postponed, rather than cancelled, with new dates for the events set in April.

“It’s still devastating and it still hurts” Mardi Gras Festival producer Tracie Miller says.

“A lot of work energy and love goes into these events. I know it’s the right decision but it still hurts.”

Miller’s suite of events include Fair Day, Laneway and Queer Art After Hours. Fair Day went ahead as planned, as will Queer Art After Hours, which, compared to the likes of Sissy Ball, is more straightforward. “We keep to the gallery capacity and its existing Covid controls in place by avoiding clustering and ensuring a spread across gallery,” Miller explains.

The same goes for Laneway – she’ll work with the Beresford on their existing Covid safety plan.

This is, she says, the greatest challenge of her events career.

“It’s tested and strengthened my adaptability skills,” she says.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival producer Tracie Miller, pictured, says the challenges posed by Covid have strengthened her adaptability skills. Photo: supplied.

“It’s one of best teams I ever worked with; I’m so grateful to work with talented artists and musicians. It’s heartbreaking to see what they’re going through.”

Cass Looveer captures the vibe of the Mardi Gras workforce perfectly.

“This event literally does change lives and save lives. That’s what we keep coming back to.”

The 2022 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival continues until Sunday, 6 March. For further details, visit www.mardigras.org.au.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.

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