Published On: Thu, Jan 28th, 2021

Government cancels Carnival and Regatta

PHILIPSBURG — After an initial go-ahead for the planning of this year’s Carnival, the Council of Ministers decided in its meeting of Monday, January 26, to cancel the event. The Heineken Regatta is also off the books for this year.

The decision of the St Maarten Carnival Development Foundation (SCDF) to go ahead with the planning of Carnival triggered outcries from citizens who considered holding such an event against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic irresponsible.

But the plans soon began to unravel. The Council of Ministers gave its conditional approval on January 14, but ten days later three major sponsors, citing health and safety concerns, announced the suspension of their sponsorship: Motorworld, International Liquor and Tobacco Trading and TelEm.

That could have stopped the SCDF cold in its tracks; and maybe it wouldn’t have.

Three days earlier, on January 21, SCDF-President Alston Lourens made a desperate attempt to save the event with an elaborate Facebook-post. In it, he states that the foundation is not fighting “to wukup” (to party) but that it is fighting to work. Lourens claimed that Carnival “can put a thousand people to work” and that “the government is not the competent body on Carnival; the SCDF is.”

That statement overlooked the fact that the government has the authority to withhold permits for any event on the island. A day after the sponsors pulled out (at least, for the time being) the government announced its decision to cancel Carnival and the Heineken Regatta. The 41st edition of the regatta was scheduled to take place from March 4 to 7.

The Council of Ministers spoke with healthcare professionals and with law enforcement representatives before it took its decision. The day before the decision to cancel the Council received a report from Collective Preventive Services (CPS).

That report notes that the average number of COVID-cases remains “steadily high” and that this is not only due to holiday festivities but also to “apparent complacency with public health measures among the population.” In other words: too many people ignore the COVID-related safety protocols, thus offering a sneak preview of the expected behavior of 4,000 revelers in the Carnival Village.

CPS expects that the number of active COVID-cases will increase further. That would put a strain on the limited manpower in the public healthcare system and in law enforcement.

According to the press release from the Council of Ministers, Carnival would pose several challenges to law enforcement. The first concern is with the enforcement of social distancing during the event and the second one has to do with capacity. Law enforcement will be involved for at least six months in the vaccination program that will be rolled out at the time Carnival would have taken place.

“The potential economic benefits of Carnival and other events do not outweigh the risk to public health,” the Council of Ministers concludes in its press statement.

On the same day the government announced the cancellation of Carnival and the Heineken regatta, the regatta-organization announced its Safe Harbor-initiative on the regatta website. “The St. Maarten Yacht Club Regatta Foundation feels confident to host four days of world-class racing. We are balancing the current COVID-fear in people’s minds with the pragmatism of being able to deliver on the promise of conducting an annually globally renowned sporting event and the economic advantages this holds for many businesses.”

The regatta would have been held without parties, while the Regatta Village would have been located at Port de Plaisance. Two days after the government’s decision to cancel the event, the organization has not communicated this decision to the world via its website.

The Carnival Foundation in the meantime, issued an elaborate press statement in which it bemoans the cancellation. While the plan was to limit access to the Carnival Village to 4,000 people, the foundation maintains that it had “the most extensive health and safety plan announced on St. Maarten since the start of COVID.” It remains unclear how the foundation planned to enforce social distancing among a crowd of 4,000.

The SCDF stated in its press release that it is disappointed with the cancellation but that it will move forward with the planning of the next Carnival.

The foundation did not come with a clear reaction to the loss of three major sponsors. Instead, it stated: “We will maintain our approach to managing the relationship with corporate sponsors despite public statements.”

This begs the question what these sponsors have done or said to irritate the SCDF. After all, all they have done is express (justified) concerns about the possible impact of Carnival on public health. Apparently, the SCDF disagrees with the opinion of both sponsors and the government that the potential economic benefits of carnival do not outweigh the risk the event poses to people’s health.