SAO PAULO (AP) — The night before New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro, thousands of revelers clad in their bathing suits crowded onto the iconic Ipanema beach to have some seaside drinks. It was one of many open-air parties occurring along Brazil’s vast coastline since the summer heat set in, and as the COVID-19 death toll climbed higher.
“It was so packed, you couldn’t set foot on the beach,” said a maintenance worker at a luxury apartment building across the street. “And it wasn’t just at night; the beach was packed during the day, too. And no one wears a mask!” he added, insisting on not being quoted by name out of worry the building’s owner would punish him for speaking to a reporter.
The explosion of celebrations came just ahead of a pandemic milestone: Brazil passed 200,000 deaths Thursday, rising 1,524 in the previous 24 hours to a total of 200,498 for the pandemic, according to data released by Brazil’s health ministry. It’s the second highest toll in the world, behind the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University’s database.
Many Brazilians have been straining against quarantine for months, going to bars or small gatherings with friends, but massive blowouts had been few and far between since the pandemic began. Festivities kicked off after the Southern Hemisphere’s summer started on Dec. 21.
While many countries imposed new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus in mid-December, the administration of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro gave its blessing for holiday fun in the sun. Tourism Minister Gilson Machado told radio station Jovem Pan that gatherings of up to 300 people were perfectly acceptable. The decision to impose restrictions is the prerogative of local governments; some that did so saw their rules ignored.
A prominent YouTuber organized a party near a river beach for hundreds of people in Alagoas state, in the country’s northeast region. Days later, local media reported that 47 people, among unmasked guests and staffers contracted COVID-19. At least two were admitted to intensive-care units.
A five-day New Year’s bash drew 150 people near the property owned by soccer star Neymar outside Rio, although he denied any association with the VIP event.
Outside Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro kicked off 2021 by jumping off a boat and swimming towards a throng of unmasked, cheering supporters.
And cops in the city of Bertioga on Sao Paulo’s coast used tear gas to disperse a celebration in the early hours New Year’s Day.
“Right before the parties, the situation was already getting bad. But this week or next, it will get even worse,” Domingos Alves, an adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, told The Associated Press this week.
Alves, who leads a team of researchers tracking COVID-19 data, warned that several states’ daily confirmed cases have already surpassed the numbers seen during Brazil’s peak in July.
Intensive-care units in many cities are once…
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