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Bars, restaurants reopen in Brazil's hard-hit Rio

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Rio de Janeiro's bars and restaurants reopened Thursday after more than three months of coronavirus lockdown, despite criticism by health specialists in Brazil, one of the world's worst-hit nations.

As part of a phased return to normality, bars, restaurants and cafes are authorized to reopen to 50 percent capacity, with a distance of two meters between tables and priority given to open-air dining and drinking.

Rio's gyms, beauty and tattoo parlors may also open on a staggered basis, to avoid crowding.

"There is nothing to celebrate, but we have been in this fight since March," Rio's Mayor Marcelo Crivella said on Wednesday.

"Low demand for intensive care and hospital beds and the stabilized death toll show us that we had a dark peak in May and then dropped to current levels," he said.

The city, rimmed with beaches and mountains that normally draw tourists from around the world, registered 68 new deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. The number has fluctuated in recent weeks after peaking on June 3 with 227 deaths.

Although the disease is migrating inland -- a trend throughout Brazil -- specialists warn that the infection rate is still high and that relaxing social isolation measures now could put the health system under pressure again.

When the process of reopening began a month ago, the Reproduction Number or "R number" -- the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to -- was 1. Currently it is 1.51, said Roberto Medronho, director of research at Rio's Clementino Fraga Filho University Hospital.

"That number will increase even more with reopening, bringing health problems to our population," Medronho told AFP.

Reopening now, he said, is "premature and inopportune."

Margareth Dalcomo, a specialist at Brazil's public health institute Fiocruz said the reopening plan "is a disaster."

"We could have saved many lives with more strict confinement from April," she said.

Even at the pandemic's height, Rio authorities opted for a relatively loose lockdown, with no coercive measures taken to ensure people stayed home.

The city's decree was limited to a ban on visiting beaches and the closure of shops deemed non-essential.

Rio de Janeiro state, the second hardest hit Brazilian region after Sao Paulo, has already surpassed 10,000 deaths, more than 60 percent of them in Rio municipality, and more than 115,000 infections.

Brazil on Wednesday surpassed 60,000 deaths and 1.44 million infections, although specialists believe the actual number of cases may be much higher due to the lack of diagnostic tests.

According to Medronho, the cumulative number of infections could be up to 10 times higher and the actual number of deaths could be double the official count.

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