By María Angelica Troncoso
Rio de Janeiro, Oct 27 (EFE).- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most iconic city, has got the jump on the country’s other big cities and starting Wednesday will no longer demand that people wear facemasks during open-air activities to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a measure that will also take effect in Brazil starting next week.
The decision was announced Tuesday evening by Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, after the Rio de Janeiro state Legislative Assembly approved lifting the mask requirement for all municipalities in the region and the municipal scientific committee confirmed that doing so would be safe now that 65 percent of Rio residents have been fully vaccinated against the sometimes deadly disease.
The decree published on Wednesday by the City Hall makes the use of facemasks optional at open-air sites but retains the obligation for people to use them in closed venues and on public transportation, although the measure will only become effective on Thursday, when Rio de Janeiro Gov. Carlos Castro will approve and publish the plan approved by the state legislature.
“We’re moving toward 70 percent (of the public) vaccinated with the second dose, besides having 99 percent of the population (above age 12) with the first one, which makes us one of the cities with one of the highest levels of vaccination in the world,” the mayor said in a video posted on the social networks.
“There’s no doubt that we’re overcoming the pandemic,” he added.
Despite the decision by City Hall, Rio residents are still displaying reluctance to go out on the street without masks and some have said on the social networks that they will only dispense with their facemasks when the pandemic is completely over.
With the removal of the open-air mask requirement, the City Hall also lifted the ban on discotheques and nightclubs, which will once again be able to open their doors at 50 pecent capacity and under the condition that customers verify that they are fully immunized.
The measure adopted by Rio will also go into effect in Brasilia starting on Nov. 3 and in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city with some 12 million esidents, local authorities are expected to make a similar decision on the matter in mid-November.
Other state capitals in Brazil have not yet specified when they will make using facemasks for open-air activities optional.
Rio’s move has been applauded by local residents but many experts say that it is premature.
“Although the municipality of Rio de Janeiro has a little more tan 65 percent of its population vaccinated, we can’t guarantee that it’s a sufficiently large number to block the circulation of the virus,” Rafael Guimaraes, a researcher with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s (Fiocruz) Covid Observatory, told EFE.
He acknowledged the “substantial” reduction in serious and fatal cases of Covid in Rio thanks to the vaccination campaign, but he said that the mask decision was “mistaken” because the spread of the virus will only be brought under control when 80 percent of the population has been fully immunized.
Guimaraes said that the spread of the virus is not being stopped only by immunization and other measures such as the use of facemasks are still needed, and he noted that England, which with less than 60 percent of its population fully vaccinated dispensed with masks in July, is now registering a new spike in infections with an average of 45,000 newly detected cases cropping up each day.
Rio Health Secretary Daniel Soranz defends the local authorities’ decision though, saying that the city has seen nine consecutive weeks of declining case loads with just 2 percent of hospital beds now being occupied by Covid patients and with the “lowest” transmission rate since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Rio de Janeiro is hoping to have everyone over age 12 fully vaccinated in November so that it can guarantee that “Reveillon,” the traditional year-end celebration, can go forward, thus opening the way for Carnival to be held in 2022 and tourism – the city’s main source of revenue – to pull itself out of the doldrums.