Brazil dilutes mask law as its coronavirus cases top 1.5 million

President Jair Bolsonaro waters down law requiring face masks in public places as country's cases surpass 1.5 million.

    People wear protective masks as they walk at a popular shopping street, as the city eases restrictions and allows commerce to open, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [Lucas Landau/Reuters]
    People wear protective masks as they walk at a popular shopping street, as the city eases restrictions and allows commerce to open, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [Lucas Landau/Reuters]

    Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has watered down a law requiring the wearing of face masks in public places even as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country surpassed 1.5 million.

    The Latin American country has the world's second-largest outbreak after the United States. The new virus has now killed more than 61,000 people across Brazil.

    But Bolsonaro on Friday used his veto power to dilute a law aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. The law mandates masks in public spaces, but the president removed provisions that mandate face coverings in shops and churches.

    One of the original articles stipulated that masks must be worn in "commercial and industrial establishments, religious temples, teaching premises and also closed places where people are gathering".

    Brazilian court order comes as Germany places two districts under lockdown following outbreak at meat plant.
    A woman walking past a graffiti of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a person depicting the coronavirus pulling a rope against health workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil; the graffiti reads: 'Which side are you on?' [File: Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

    Bolsonaro however alleged the article was unconstitutional, saying it could "possibly violate the home" in referring to closed places where businesses and meetings take place.

    The Chamber of Deputies insisted this clause referred to places that are "accessible to the public" and not homes, which are protected by the constitution.

    Bolsonaro also vetoed articles requiring shops and businesses to provide staff with masks and public authorities to distribute masks to "economically vulnerable people".

    Congress must now study the president's vetoes and decide whether to maintain or reverse them.

    'A tragedy foretold'

    Since the beginning of the virus outbreak, Bolsonaro has minimised the risks of what he initially called "a little flu". His opposition to lockdowns and flouting of measures aimed at stifling the virus's spread has provoked a hail of criticism from some.

    And for months, he has pressured governors to reverse lockdown measures and reopen the economy. The new grim milestone of 1.5 million cases came as large cities reopened bars, restaurants and gyms, sparking fears infections will keep rising. 

    In Rio de Janeiro, crowds gathered to drink on the sidewalk of an upscale beach-side neighbourhood on Thursday night, the first evening bars in the city were allowed to reopen.

    Pictures of the revelry in Leblon, where few were wearing face masks and people were huddled close together, went viral on social media drawing condemnation and concern.

    "A tragedy foretold," David Miranda, a federal congressman for Rio, wrote on Twitter above a picture of the crowded sidewalk. He criticised the city's Mayor Marcelo Crivella.

    "Crivella's decision to throw open the doors of business will come with a high cost," he added.

    Crivella's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    In Rio alone, more than 6,600 people have died of COVID-19 in the past four months. Only 14 countries in the world have a death toll higher than the city. Intensive care units in public hospitals are at 70 percent capacity.

    Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest and worst-hit city, is expected to open bars and restaurants next week.

    Left Wing Parties and Social Movements Protest Against President Bolsonaro and Governor of Rio de Janeiro Witzel Amidst The Coronavirus (COVID - 19) Pandemic
    Demonstrators hold signs during a rally against President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor of Rio de Janeiro Wilson Witzel amidst the coronavirus pandemic at Copacabana Beach on June 28, 2020, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [File: Andre Coelho/Getty Images]

    SOURCE: News agencies