Virus outbreak forces São Paulo to close with Buenos Aires reopening

SÃO PAULO (AP) – A wave of COVID-19 cases is interrupting the steps of samba in the largest metropolis in Brazil, while the capital of Argentina tiptoes to return to the tango stage.

The two largest cities in each of South America’s neighboring countries are moving in opposite directions, reflecting how those who loosen restrictions despite scientists’ warnings see an increase in the pandemic, while others that maintain effective social distance measures are able to reopen their savings earlier.

São Paulo, where nearly 12 million people live, is preparing for the two worst weeks of the pandemic and the growing risk that its once resilient health system will collapse, Governor João Doria told reporters on Wednesday. More than 75% of the city’s intensive care beds are occupied by patients from COVID-19 and some wards – such as those at the private hospital Albert Einstein – are full for the first time.

Doria announced that the entire state, where 46 million people reside, will face the highest level of restrictions on Saturday to contain the spread of the virus. This means the closure of all bars, restaurants, shopping malls and any other establishment considered non-essential until at least March 19th.

Meanwhile, the nearly 3 million residents of Buenos Aires are enjoying a relaxation of their restrictions, with authorization to attend theaters starting this week. On Wednesday, official data showed that only 26% of intensive care beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. The low rate of hospitalization also allowed local authorities to reopen bars and restaurants in mid-February until 2 am – something long sought after in a city famous for its permanent culture.

This means that the famous Buenos Aires steakhouses are rekindling their fires, while the counterparts in São Paulo extinguish theirs.

Buenos Aires casinos also reopened in late 2020, and officials are debating whether the football-crazed city could return to the stadiums any time soon. In Brazil, despite pressure from President Jair Bolsonaro to allow fans to return, no local official is seriously considering opening stadiums. The NeoQuímica arena with 48 thousand seats, on the east side of São Paulo, is being used as a vaccination post.

Good news from the São Paulo region arrived on Tuesday, when soccer star Pelé received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The 80-year-old man posted the news on his social media channels.

“The pandemic is not over yet. We must maintain discipline to preserve lives until many people have had the vaccine, ”said the three-time World Cup winner. “When you go out, don’t forget your mask and keep your social distance.”

His appeal is important – even a year after the start of the pandemic – as Bolsonaro continues to cast doubts about the effectiveness of the masks.

The distance between the two nations apparently increased during the pandemic, with Bolsonaro and Argentine Alberto Fernández taking opposite directions in dealing with the crisis. The first minimized the risks of the disease and insisted on keeping the economy agitated, while the second took a more cautious stance.

Fernández imposed one of the longest quarantines in the world between March and October, despite the risks of damaging an economy already in recession.

Last week, Brazil recorded 35 deaths from COVID-19 per million inhabitants, almost triple that of Argentina.

The problems in São Paulo worsened after the furtive carnival celebrations in mid-February. Although celebrations and street parades were canceled, many paulistas, as residents are known, traveled or participated in unmasked meetings. The city did not allow days off traditionally allowed during the carnival period, in an attempt to prevent people from partying.

Izidoro Silveira, 34, got a job as a waitress at a pizzeria in downtown São Paulo two months ago, after almost a full year of unemployment. He is upset about the imminent closure of his restaurant.

“Whoever delivers will not get hurt, but I and many others will,” said an anguished Silveira while watching a news on television about the stoppage. “I don’t know what to say to my wife and daughter. I am afraid of losing my job again, even though I work in a place that takes every precaution. “

Not far away, the cinemas on the city’s main street, Avenida Paulista, are empty, as they have been since the beginning of the pandemic.

Argentina’s ease does not mean that the virus is completely under control. Wednesday’s official figures showed 262 deaths and more than 8,700 new infections in the country. Vaccine delivery is slow. But the overwhelming darkness seen in São Paulo seems to be far from Buenos Aires.

With a bag of popcorn in one hand and a soft drink in the other, Bautista Sundblat, 8, was eager to enter a cinema in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires to watch “Bad Boys Forever”.

“He’s very excited,” said his mother, Martina. “We have been waiting for a long time. There are few places, everything is taken care of. He’s a movie fanatic. There is still a long way to go, but little by little we are getting where we wanted to be. “

___ Rey reported from Buenos Aires.