Winter Carnival 2021: Cartoons and COVID-19

Two students wearing masks work on snow statue
Two students wearing masks work on snow statue
Members of Michigan Tech's Air Force ROTC, observing COVID-19 protocol, work on a statue for the month-long competition.

To answer the question that’s been on everyone’s mind: Yes, there will be Winter Carnival at Michigan Tech this year. But, it’s going to look a bit different.

For just shy of a century, Winter Carnival at Michigan Technological University has entertained and awed countless students, alumni, visitors and locals with a plethora of activities and its world-renowned snow statues. This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnival will go on — but the driving force is the safety of all involved. Carnival takes place Feb. 3-7 with the theme “Our Favorite Cartoons for Snowy Afternoons.”

Scott Sviland is president of Blue Key Honor Society, the student organization that has organized Winter Carnival since 1934. The graduate student from Escanaba said some Carnival events have been canceled this year and others have been augmented to account for COVID-19 protocols. But rest assured, the tradition of mammoth snow sculptures carries on. 

Safety First

“Our top priority is safety,” Sviland said. “Everyone involved has worked so hard to make sure all stay safe, especially with snow statue construction.” In putting safety first, Blue Key adopted MTU Flex protocols, he noted. “All groups in the month-long competition are following COVID-19 protocols — wearing face coverings, maintaining six-feet social distancing and keeping the number of people working on each statue under 25.” Additionally, Sviland said most statue crews are keeping in their own social groups. “Most of those in Greek organizations live together where they’re building the statue.” 

Kellie Raffaelli, associate dean of student engagement, agreed the students’ efforts to ensure a safe Carnival have been impressive. “Michigan Tech students have gone above and beyond to follow all COVID-19 protocols to keep campus safe,” she said. “I am confident they will continue that hard work and diligence throughout Winter Carnival.”

Not Your Parents’ All-nighter

In normal times, one of the highlights of Carnival is the Wednesday all-nighter, when the final touches are put on the month-in-the-making statues. The frenetic one-night competition sees piles of snow transform into works of art in a matter of hours. Usually the Carnival atmosphere, with food vendors, games and hundreds dancing on a dance floor of snow, draws thousands of visitors from throughout the region. 

Sviland says there will be an all-nighter this year — but it will be different. “There will be no vendors this year. People can watch the statue construction, but many of the traditional activities won’t be happening,” he explained. It should be noted that most of the activities of this year’s Carnival are focused on students. 

There’s still going to be music Wednesday night, but on a different scale. Instead of the large snow dance floor, there will be smaller DJ spots scattered throughout campus that will play various types of music to continue the ambiance that makes the Carnival all-nighter special. “I think if that goes well, we may keep it for future all-nighters,” Sviland said.

Some Traditions Canceled, Others Adapted

In order to adhere to COVID-19 protocols, Sviland said many popular Winter Carnival events won’t be happening this year. “There won’t be all-nighter broomball, sleigh rides, dogsled rides, SnoBall or fireworks,” he said. “We have kept many popular activities but modified them to adhere to the protocols.”

A number of events will be held virtually. “There will be a skits competition of sorts,” Sviland said, “but groups will produce short TikTok-type videos which will appear on a YouTube channel and be voted on.”

This year’s Winter Carnival comedian will entertain audiences with his outrageous brand of comedy without stepping foot on campus. “We’re having a Q&A over Zoom with Steve-O from MTV’s ‘Jackass,’ and it’s going to be wild,” said Sviland. 

Steve-O, who has added stand-up comedian, actor, and best-selling author to his resume since his “Jackass” days, will field questions from 9-10 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5.

Ambassadors Will Reign Over Carnival

New this year is the Ambassadors competition, in which 11 candidates look to become one of three Ambassadors who will preside over Carnival events and activities. “We have so many amazing students, and this event is a way to showcase some of these impressive individuals and the incredible things they’ve accomplished,” Sviland stated.

Even though things are different, the public is invited to check out the statues and all that Carnival entails. “All the statues are located near sidewalks, so viewing the statues isn’t difficult. We just ask that everyone practice social distancing and adhere to COVID-19 protocols,” said Sviland.

Despite the challenges of hosting a Carnival in the time of COVID-19, Sviland is confident. “Everyone has been so supportive … the organizations, the University and the local community,” he said. “The community has been beyond supportive and we can’t thank them enough.”

A complete schedule of Winter Carnival events, including links for virtual events, can be found on the Winter Carnival website.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.