“My crew and I are excited to be back to work,” that he told CNN about his place called Cabanna, which serves snacks, sandwiches and cocktails. “It will be different, with all the precautionary measures we have to take, distances of tables, number of people sitting together, but it feels good to be working again.”
Assy said that he barely avoided bankruptcy, laying off four of his 11 employees and freezing or reducing the salaries of the residual seven when Rio de Janeiro ordered all but essential organizations closed in March, in a bid to halt the spread of Covid-19.
“Another month like this, and I would have to close completely,” he said. “Today I am more afraid of staying at home and not working than of the coronavirus.”
Like many cities in Brazil, under great pressure from growing unemployment and a tanking economy, Rio de Janeiro is relaxing restrictions — despite warnings from experts that the town has to date failed to bring Covid-19 under control.
Starting Thursday, restaurants, bars and gyms were allowed to reopen, following new health guidelines that required the wearing of masks and social distancing. On the very first day, there have been few clients on the waterfront promenade, although it was unclear if it was due to the elements or a still very-present anxiety about the coronavirus, which experts say might not peak in Brazil until mid-August.
But on June 2, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella nevertheless announced a plan to gradually curl up restrictions, you start with the reopening of car dealerships and home decorations stores. Then came commerce, shopping malls plus some public spaces.
A month later, the death toll from Covid-19 has increased 70% to 6,550 and the total amount of infections in the city is up not exactly 50% to 57,879, according to Rio’s state health secretary. And whilst the number of deaths recorded in the second 1 / 2 of the month was slightly lower, 1,303 vs 1,372, the number of new cases was 16% higher at 13,675.
Another city has regrets
But plans to reopen remain unchanged. Experts warn Rio could follow in the footsteps of other Brazilian cities that moved prematurely to reopen and finished up having to close down again.
One of the first Brazilian state capitals to implement a quarantine, Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais, started to reopen its economy at the end of May. But this week it ordered non-essential activities to close again, due to the spike in deaths and hospitalizations.
The proven fact that the virus spread as restrictions relaxed in Rio was no coincidence, according to Roberto Medronho, an epidemiologist at UFRJ and one of the creators of the “covidimeter,” an instrument that calculates the transmission rate. On June 7, the capital had a transmission rate of just one.03. Three weeks later, the transmission rate was at 1.46.
“This indicates that the decision to expand the reopening was based on economic and non-scientific criteria,” Medronho told CNN.
Economists are forecasting a historic recession due to Covid-19. The Brazilian Central Bank estimated a 6.4% drop in GDP because of this year, whilst the International Monetary Fund is more pessimistic and sees the economy shrinking 9.1% in 2020.
Rio’s Crivella said his decisions were made after discussions together with his scientific committee, which determined that gyms, bars, and restaurants could reopen since the number of deaths had slowed and the percentage of ICU beds occupied had also declined.
In early June, 90% of ICU beds in Rio were occupied. This week, the rate had fallen to 69%. Experts nevertheless say it will not function as the only statistic used to make decisions.
“But this has a limit: doctors are not as available as beds, and there is no way to increase this capacity indefinitely. Relying only on ICU bed occupation as a foundation for reopening is a trick that’s being used to calm the population.”
Alves said plans a few weeks to open soccer matches in the town to people will only aggravate the already delicate situation.
The city of Belo Horizonte also based its decision to reopen at the end of May on ICU bed occupation, a choice Mayor Alexandre Kalil now regrets.
“What we are doing as a country is to buy more beds. It was a mistake to think that this would solve it. Now we had to close again in Belo Horizonte because the cases skyrocketed. I see this drama as a war, and in a war, you change your strategy all the time,” Kalil said within an interview.
By the finish of May, the number of hospital beds in Belo Horizonte had quadrupled since the start of the pandemic and Kalil allowed retail stores and beauty salons to open.
Unlike Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte failed to permit departmental stores, churches, and parks to reopen, but even so, in just a month cases jumped from 1,852 to 4,942, and the death toll went from 49 to 106. Earlier this week, 92% of intensive care beds were occupied.
Kalil re-imposed social isolation measures on June 26. He said they’ll be maintained for at least still another two weeks.
“You can’t say that everything is OK when the media reports the country’s death toll has surpassed 60,000. In Belo Horizonte we are not flat-earthers. Closing or opening will depend on science and numbers,” that he said.
Scientists at the Covid-19 Brasil group predict that cities relaxing social distancing measures could see a 150% increase in how many registered cases of Covid-19 in the next fourteen days.
“Governors and mayors are sending the population to the slaughterhouse with the prerogative of an economic recovery,” said Domingos Alves.