By Yann SCHREIBER
Cologne, Germany - Germany may be registering record coronavirus infections again but in Cologne, revellers shrugged off any virus fears to return in force on Thursday for their first carnival fair since the pandemic.
"We are completely protected" by the the rules keeping unvaccinated people away from the event, said Marie-Louise, who had travelled in from the Netherlands for the street party.
The Cologne Carnival, which begins at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, kicks off a months-long series of merrymaking events running through to Ash Wednesday the following year.
The street festivities in the western city involving people dressed up in elaborate costumes, partying to big band music and enjoying comedy shows, were cancelled in 2020 over the pandemic, like elsewhere across Germany.
Early in the health crisis last year, a carnival party had become a superspreader event, leading to Germany's first major cluster of infections.
More than a year on, the Covid crisis still casts a shadow over festivities.
Germany registered a record number of new infections in 24 hours, official data showed, and regions are laying on new restrictions, especially targetting the unvaccinated.
Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, himself an afficionado of dressing up at carnivals, said he found it "a little difficult to imagine carnival" going ahead.
Instead, he warned that restrictions on such events may be needed to halt surging infections.
The Cologne event too had to improvise as the designated "prince" who is meant to lead the festivities tested positive on the eve of the carnival and had to be replaced at the 11th hour.
But the crowd was undeterred.
'We are back'
Gathered without masks in a square in the city's old town, they turned up in their thousands to the tune of the song "Mir sin widder do" - "we are back".
Uwe Schoernig, who is the treasurer of an association of carnival participants, said: "It feels great to party again.
"I'm not going to feel bad about having fun," Schoernig, dressed in a sailor's uniform, told AFP. "If the politicians think restrictions are necessary, we'll keep to the rules. But as long as that's not the case, we will carry on."
Hanno Puetz, who was the "prince" leading festivities at Bergisch Gladbach city in 2019, agreed.
"We've been waiting for so long," he said, pointing to cancelled carnivals through 2020. "We can't wait any longer to parade through the streets in our costumes."
"We have so little normalcy in our lives these days. Here at least we can bring back a bit of joy," said Puetz.
Martina, 22, who had travelled from Bielefeld with her friend Alina for the party, said: "We feel free again."
She told AFP: "You just need to get vaccinated and then there's no problem."
But not all are throwing caution to the wind.
Reveller Stephanie Walbroehl said she plans to "test herself through the weekend" before returning to work.