Rio street vendors suffer as beaches close

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


Street vendor Jorge Martins plods the fine sand of Ipanema as he tries to sell the last of his caipirinha cocktails to tourists before Rio de Janeiro's beaches shut down against the coronavirus.

From Saturday, when a decree by state governor Wilson Witzel comes into effect, Rio's iconic Ipanema and Copacabana beaches will be off-limits to sunseekers.

Empty beaches seem unthinkable in Rio's year-round sun, but the numbers of beachgoers have dropped significantly in the last week after Witzel deployed Civil Defense workers with megaphones to urge people to stay away.

Still, Martins was giving it one last go before Ipanema becomes a no-go zone: "Caipirinha, Caipirinha!"

"As long as I can, I will continue to come here and try to sell cocktails. I still have not thought about what I will do when it is no longer possible," Martins told AFP.

For people like him who depend on informal work for their livelihood, with no social welfare safety net, the federal government announced a monthly allowance of 200 reals (around 40 dollars, 37 euros) until the end of the crisis.

But that's just one-fifth of the minimum wage.

"What am I going to do with that? That's barely enough to buy bread," said Martins, who has spent the last 32 of his 55 years working on the beach.

According to the latest official statistics, compiled before the pandemic, nearly 12 million Brazilians are unemployed, more than 11 percent of the country's population of 210 million.

And some 40 percent of the working population work in the informal sector.

- Border closures -

Ze Joaquim Assis runs a kiosk on Copacabana beach where he rents out sun loungers and parasols.

For him, 200 reals "is better than nothing, but I earn it in one day by working here in normal times."

His sales have crashed this week, after authorities announced the first restrictive measures to try to stop the virus.

Rio's Hoteliers Association says occupancy plunged 70 percent to just 15 percent this week, after authorities closed the city's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue and the cable car that takes sightseers to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain -- two of Rio's most famous attractions.

The health ministry says the country has 621 infections with six deaths. Two of the deaths have occurred in Rio, the second most affected area after Sao Paulo.

That has not stopped British tourist Ian Cooper, sipping beer with a friend at Ipanema, from making the most of his holiday.

"I don't know if we would have enjoyed visiting the city more if it were full," he told AFP.

"We've been here for six days and our stay has been very peaceful and pleasant," he said, while acknowledging that precautions were necessary.

"We wash our hands after each contact and try to keep away from people."

If his flight is confirmed, he will return home on Sunday, a day before Brazil closes it borders to nationals from Europe, Australia and several Asian countries.