SAO PAULO – Retail shops reopened on Wednesday after a two-month pandemic shutdown in Brazil's biggest city, leading to crowded buses and subways from early in the day — and with many people ignoring social distancing rules. Sao Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas authorized the restart of commerce between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. as long as shops require customers to use masks and limit those allowed inside. Stores in malls, however, remain closed until Thursday.
Brazil is among the Latin American countries hit hardest by the pandemic, with about 39,000 deaths according to official figures. Sao Paulo state is approaching 10,000 deaths from COVID-19, with about half of those in the metropolis of 12 million residents. On Wednesday, the state reported a record 24-hour increase to its death toll, 340 people — surpassing a record set just the previous day.
Sao Paulo city has seen a slight decrease in its intensive-care unit bed occupancy rate, to around 70%. But many health specialists advised against the reopening, saying contagion is still growing in the city, though at a slower rate.
As the day began, many commuters headed back to jobs unmasked, ignoring Covas' order that only those wearing masks be allowed in buses and other public transport.
Sao Paulo's City Hall said that 92% of the almost 12,000 available buses were circulating Wednesday, up from 85% the prior day.
On 25 de Março street, where people from all over Brazil flock to buy cheap items, there was no sign of authorities trying to enforce social distancing rules, which were largely unheeded. Customers had their temperature measured and received hand sanitizer at the entrance of some shops, though.
Milla Martins, manager of a wig store in the region, was glad to return to work. “As big as our fear can be, we cannot bear this situation. I know our enemy is invisible, but we need to face it,” she said inside her store.
Street vendors remained forbidden, but dozens flouted that restriction in the Bras district, selling clothing on the sidewalk.
Part of the pressure for business to return has come from retailers who want to take advantage of Friday's celebration of the Brazilian version of Valentine's Day.
After business hours ended, bus and subway stops were once more crowded, with some commuters being more selective about when to use public transport than in the morning.
Earlier on Wednesday, Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria said he expects the number of COVID-19 fatalities in the state to double to about 20,000 by the end of the month. He extended isolation recommendations until June 28, but agreed that the metropolis is in a better situation and can reopen some businesses.
Other areas of the state of 46 million people have seen a worsening scenario, as the virus spreads in the countryside, and will be under more restrictions until the end of the month.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella promised to authorize the reopening of malls on Thursday.
AP video journalist Tatiana Pollastri contributed to this report.