Britain's Jewish Chronicle to seek liquidation

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, which describes itself as the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, is to seek liquidation, one of the most high profile media casualties of the coronavirus pandemic that has led to a collapse in advertising spend.

Founded in 1841, the title – often known as the JC – said the liquidation was expected to be finalised in the coming two to three weeks and it would make every effort to continue to publish over that time.

“Devastating news for us,” said Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

“I won’t be saying anything beyond confirming that the paper will be out as usual next week, and we have every intention of avoiding any interruption,” Pollard said.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has hammered marketing budgets, forcing media groups around the world to reduce staffing numbers, cut costs and halt publication of some titles.

“Despite the heroic efforts of the editorial and production team at the newspaper, it has become clear that the Jewish Chronicle will not be able to survive the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic in its current form,” the JC said in a statement.

The Kessler Foundation, owners of the newspaper, said it was working to secure a future for the title after the liquidation.

The Guardian newspaper reported that staff had been told the parent company had run out of money during the lockdown.

The London-based Jewish Chronicle says it strives to reflect a wide diversity of Jewish religious, social and political thought across the spectrum, both Orthodox and secular.

In one of the newspaper’s most notable interviews, the JC in 1981 spoke to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who described Israel’s attack on an Iraqi nuclear plant as a step towards international anarchy.

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GM to supply 30,000 ventilators in $500 million U.S. contract

(Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday awarded automaker General Motors Co (GM.N) a contract worth $489.4 million to make ventilators needed to treat severely sick coronavirus patients.

The Department of Health and Human Services contract is the first for ventilator production under the Defense Production Act, invoked by President Donald Trump to get companies to produce essential gear needed to fight the pandemic.

GM will work with ventilator firm Ventec Life Systems to deliver 30,000 ventilators under the contract to the U.S. government by the end of August, with deliveries of the first 6,132 ventilators taking place by June 1.

The company “will fulfill the government contract and (has) the capacity to supply more if needed,” GM spokesman Jim Cain said, adding that the contract also includes “consumables and accessories (hoses, stands, etc.) to support each unit.”

GM Vice President Gerald Johnson told Reuters last month the automaker is spending tens of millions on retooling costs as it produces the ventilators, and that if supplier retooling costs are factored in, total retooling costs were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last week, smaller rival Ford Motor Co (F.N) also said it will produce 50,000 ventilators over the next 100 days at a plant in Michigan in cooperation with General Electric Co’s (GE.N) healthcare unit.

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China's Wuhan lockdown ends, but another begins as local coronavirus cases rise

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – The Chinese city where the coronavirus epidemic first broke out, Wuhan, ended a two-month lockdown on Wednesday, but a northern town started restricting the movement of its residents amid concerns of a second wave of infections in mainland China.

China sealed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in late January to stop the spread of the virus. Over 50,000 people in Wuhan caught the virus, and more than 2,500 of them died, about 80% of all deaths in China, according to official figures.

The virus has since become a global pandemic that has infected over 1.4 million people and killed 82,000, wreaking havoc on the global economy as governments worldwide imposed sweeping lockdowns to rein in its spread.

Restrictions in Wuhan have eased in recent days as the capital of Hubei province reported just three new confirmed infections in the past 21 days and only two new infections in the past fortnight.

But even as people leave the city, new imported cases in the northern province of Heilongjiang surged to a daily high of 25, fuelled by an influx of infected travellers arriving from Russia, which shares a land border with the province.

Suifenhe City in Heilongjiang restricted the movement of its citizens on Wednesday in a similar fashion to that of Wuhan.

Residents must stay in residential compounds and one person from a family can leave once every three days to buy necessities and must return on the same day, said state-run CCTV.

In Jiaozhou City in the eastern province of Shandong the risk level had risen from low to medium, according to a post on an official website, but it gave no further details.

A county in central China with a population of about 600,000 went into a partial lockdown on April 1 following several new infections, including at least two asymptomatic cases.

LEAVING WUHAN

Around 55,000 people are expected to leave Wuhan by train on Wednesday. More than 10,000 travellers have left the city by plane so far as flights resume at Wuhan Tianhe airport. Flights to Beijing and international locations have not been restored.

“I’m very happy, I’m going home today,” migrant worker Liu Xiaomin told Reuters as she stood with her suitcases inside Wuhan’s Hankou railway station, bound for Xiangyang city.

Still, Wuhan residents have been urged not to leave the province, their city or even their neighbourhood unless absolutely necessary.

People from Wuhan arriving in the Chinese capital Beijing will have to undergo two rounds of testing for the virus.

China is maintaining strict screening protocols, concerned about any resurgence in domestic transmissions due to virus carriers who exhibit no symptoms and infected travellers arriving from overseas.

IMPORTED CASES

Authorities are chiefly concerned with imported infections and asymptomatic cases, people who have been infected with the virus but do not show any symptoms such as fever or a cough.

Mainland China’s new coronavirus cases doubled over the past 24 hours as the number of infected overseas travellers surged, while new asymptomatic infections more than quadrupled.

New confirmed cases rose to 62 on Tuesday from 32 a day earlier, the National Health Commission said, the highest since March 25. New imported infections accounted for 59 of the cases.

The number of new asymptomatic cases rose to 137 from 30 a day earlier, the health authority said on Wednesday, with incoming travellers accounting for 102 of the latest batch.

Chinese authorities do not count asymptomatic cases as part of its tally of confirmed coronavirus infections until patients show symptoms such as a fever or a cough.

As of Tuesday, 1,095 asymptomatic patients were under medical observation in China, with 358 of them travellers arriving from abroad.

To stem infections from outside its borders, China has slashed the number of international flights and denied entry to virtually all foreigners. It also started testing all international arrivals for the virus this month.

Screening of travellers arriving overland was also recently tightened.

As of Tuesday, the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China stood at 81,802, including 3,333 fatalities, the National Health Commission said.

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Australia's parliament set to pass huge stimulus plan as S&P lowers 'AAA' outlook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s coveted ‘AAA’ rating came under a cloud on Wednesday as the country’s parliament returned to pass an emergency A$130 billion ($80 billion) stimulus package to help cushion the blow to the economy from the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia’s government has so far pledged A$320 billion in fiscal support as the coronavirus pandemic shuts companies and leaves many unemployed.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has dealt Australia a severe economic and fiscal shock,” S&P said as it lowered the outlook on the country’s ‘AAA’ sovereign rating to “negative” from “stable”.

“We expect the Australian economy to plunge into recession for the first time in almost 30 years, causing a substantial deterioration of the government’s fiscal headroom at the ‘AAA’ rating level.”

A triple-A credit rating is given to only a select group of countries with the strongest finances in the world. The rating means a country can easily meet its financial commitments and have the lowest risk of default.

S&P’s decision came as a pared back version of Australia’s parliament votes on the government’s third tranche of fiscal measures on Wednesday. Fewer than normal lawmakers were present for the one-day sitting to minimise the risk of the virus spreading.

In his address to parliament, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said lawmakers were acting to “protect Australia’s sovereignty”.

“When Australian lives and livelihoods are threatened, when they are under attack, our nation’s sovereignty is put at risk, and we must respond,” he added.

The support measures come as economists predict the worst recession in Australia’s history, with the unemployment rate almost doubling to near 10%. The Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday predicted a “very large” economic contraction in the current quarter.

Restrictions on people movement and gatherings to curb the spread of infection have forced many businesses in the hospitality, retail, transport and education sectors to shut. Businesses that remain open face falling sales and increasing operational restrictions.

Australian police said they will ensure social distancing and travel restrictions are enforced during the upcoming long Easter weekend as the national death toll from the coronavirus reached 50.

Health Minister Greg Hunt warned abandoning social distancing rules and stay at home advice over the long weekend would undo the success Australia has had in fighting the virus.

“The virus doesn’t take a holiday,” he told the Ten Network.

The total number of cases across Australia is creeping toward 6,000, although the pace of infections has slowed dramatically in the past week.

The early success in controlling the spread of the virus has fanned speculation some of the mobility restrictions could be eased from the beginning of May.

The New South Wales (NSW) state premier Gladys Berejiklian said in a televised briefing in Sydney that “there could be a chance, if the health experts deem it appropriate”.

However, she warned lifting restrictions could lead to a second wave of infections. NSW is the country’s worst affected state accounting for almost half the total infections.

“Every time you relax a restriction, more people will get sick. More people will die. And it’s a horrible situation to be in, but they’re the choices and we need to be up-front about that.”

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Quebec doctor concerned by hydroxychloroquine shortage after patients denied treatment

It’s been touted as a “miracle drug” in the fight against COVID-19. But experts across Canada are now warning against the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of the disease until further scientific research proves that it helps.

Still, thousands of Quebec patients are now being denied treatment due to an anticipated shortage of the prescription drug.

“Is it really being used in studies on COVID-19 patients, which I think would be very appropriate?” said rheumatologist Dr. Michel Zummer. “Or is it being stockpiled or used otherwise?” he asked, after 300 of his patients were contacted by their pharmacists and told they can no longer fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine.

Quebec pharmacists are now restricting the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after Quebec’s national institute of excellence in health and social services (INESSS) issued a collective prescription to prepare for a possible shortage of the drug.

It’s currently being used to treat patients with COVID-19 despite it not being approved by Health Canada for this purpose.

“The issue is we don’t know is how long there will be this shortage of medication, if there really is a shortage of medication because we really don’t know what happened to this medication, where it went,” said Zummer.

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The former Chief of Rheumatology at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital and current co-chair of the Arthritis Alliance of Canada is demanding answers from the Quebec government after an estimated 300 of his patients had been denied treatment.

“Personally I have asked questions and my association has asked questions,” said Zummer. “We don’t know what the government is doing about trying to secure more medication and when this medication will be available for our patients.”

A 58-year old mother of three who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis nearly two decades ago claims it’s the only drug that alleviates her excruciating pain. She’s desperately trying to reach her doctor since the available alternatives for her condition don’t sound promising.

“It’s about $1,000 a month so it’s not an option for me.”

According to Zummer,  patients may not have access to other promising medications since some require “special-access criteria,” meaning patients need to have active disease and symptoms which many do not when the disease is under control.

He hopes the Quebec government will soon provide answers and affordable alternatives for patients before they relapse. 

“Usually if the medication is stopped for a week or two there should not be a problem. Hydroxychloroquine is stored in the body for quite a long time,” said Zummer.

“But sooner or later, patients’ arthritis will flare.”

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Wynn, NCR deals a sign of yet more risk returning to bond market

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. casino operator Wynn Resorts Ltd (WYNN.O) and automated teller machines maker NCR Corp (NCR.N) jointly raised $1 billion on Tuesday, in the first unsecured junk-rated bond offerings since the market was roiled by the coronavirus outbreak at the start of March.

The offerings indicate investor appetite for risk is gradually returning in the market for new corporate debt rated below investment grade.

The so-called high-yield market has been supported by the Federal Reserve’s pledge to backstop the investment-grade market, according to Bill Zox, chief investment officer of fixed income at Diamond Hill Capital Management.

“It opens up the new issue market on the investment-grade side, which then gives high-yield investors some confidence that the market can absorb new issuance,” said Zox.

Wynn, which issued a warning on Feb. 28 about the potential impact of the coronavirus on earnings, sold $600 million in new debt maturing in 2025, upsized from the $350 million the company originally planned to raise.

The company is paying interest of 7.75%, compared with 5.125% in a $750 million deal for bonds maturing in 2029, which was done in September.

NCR sold $400 million in new debt maturing in 2025 at a yield of 8.125%, a higher borrowing cost than the 6.125% yield on the $500 million in 2029 bonds it agreed to in August.

Yum Brands Inc (YUM.N) and Carnival Corp (CCL.N) last week reopened the market for riskier debt after its longest lull since the 2008 financial crisis, but those deals were both secured against the companies’ assets. In an unsecured deal, the borrowing is done against a company’s perceived creditworthiness.

Nevertheless, the high-yield market is still seen as off limits for smaller companies or borrowers with lower credit ratings.

“You’re going to see larger well-known issuers accessing the market. I still don’t expect very low-quality or much smaller issuers to access the new issue market,” Zox said.

Shares in Wynn and NCR closed up 7.3% and down 4.3% respectively.

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Investors await data on coronavirus drugs as market rally builds

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Clinical data on potential treatments for the new coronavirus could help sustain a market bounce that has buoyed stocks after last month’s plunge, as investors look for signs that authorities may be able to stabilize the pandemic.

Highly anticipated data for a Gilead Sciences Inc (GILD.O) experimental antiviral drug are expected later this month. Analysts are also awaiting results in the near-term for products already approved for other conditions from companies such as Roche Holding (ROG.S) and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN.O).

While experts estimate an approved vaccine could be at least a year away, progress toward treatments that benefit some COVID-19 patients could help investors gauge when the epidemic could come under control and some economic activity might resume.

“The more we see positive clinical data, the more investors will be comforted in the fact that this is a transitory issue like all epidemics are,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.

Early signs of a slowdown in hospitalizations and intensive care needs in coronavirus hotspots in the United States and abroad have fed a stock market turnaround sparked by massive support from the Federal Reserve and a more than $2 trillion government bailout. As of Monday, the S&P 500 .SPX was off about 21% from its Feb. 19 all-time high but had rebounded 19% since March 23.

“With each incremental piece of good news, that gets us closer to the end of the epidemic and the economic damage that falls in its wake,” Hogan said.

New York is nearing a plateau in the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday, even though the number of the deaths in the state hit a single-day high.

Governments around the world have locked down their communities – urging citizens to stay inside and ordering restaurants, stores and other businesses shuttered – to contain the spread of COVID-19 cases, which have exceeded 1.4 million globally with over 80,000 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins tally.

Drugmakers are studying ways to combat the respiratory illness, for which there are no approved treatments, as hospitals face strains from the flood of patients.

HUNDREDS OR TRIALS UNDERWAY

More than 330 clinical studies related to COVID-19 are listed in clinicaltrials.gov, a database maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, including many seeking to test drugs already approved for other conditions.

Gilead’s remdesivir, which is administered intravenously, is one experimental treatment that has captured investors’ attention. The biotechnology company’s chief executive on March 28 said initial data would arrive in the “coming weeks” here and analysts said data could come in mid April.

Remdesivir previously failed as a treatment for the Ebola virus. But it helped prevent disease and reduce severity of symptoms in monkeys infected with a virus more closely related to the new coronavirus in a study, raising hopes.

Some analysts are cautioning against expecting that remdesivir will show an overwhelming benefit.

Initial data are expected to come from studies of patients with relatively severe COVID-19. Because antivirals work best when patients are healthier, those results may show limited effectiveness, said Evan Seigerman, a biotech analyst at Credit Suisse.

Even if remdesivir proves effective, the amount of the drug that would be available remains a concern. Gilead said last weekend here its existing supply could equate to more than 140,000 courses of treatment.

Data is also anticipated for Regeneron (REGN.O) and Sanofi’s (SASY.PA) Kevzara, perhaps by the end of the month, and for Roche’s (ROG.S) Actemra – two similar rheumatoid arthritis drugs being tested for COVID-19 illness.

Studies are also ongoing for hydroxychloroquine, a decades-old malaria drug that has been used by doctors for COVID-19 despite controversy over its effectiveness.

“Just knowing that something works means investors can start thinking about the other side of this,” said Keith Lerner, chief market strategist at Truist/SunTrust Advisory Services, in emailed comments to Reuters, “both from a human side and an economic and market perspective.”

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Spain's coronavirus deaths tick up again to near 14,000

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s pace of coronavirus deaths ticked up for the first time in five days on Tuesday, with 743 people succumbing overnight, but there was still hope the national lockdown might be eased soon.

Tuesday’s toll from the health ministry compared to 637 deaths registered during the previous 24 hours, taking the total to 13,798, the second highest in the world after Italy.

Still, the proportional daily increase of 5.7% was about half that reported a week ago.

“It is normal to have some oscillations … What matters is to see the trend and the cumulative data,” said Maria Jose Sierra, deputy chief of health emergencies, adding that latest data included some delayed notifications from the weekend.

Total cases rose to 140,510 – the highest in Europe and second in the world after the United States.

As officials worked on a plan to lift some of the tough restrictions in place that have shut down non-core firms, the Spanish unit of Germany’s Volkswagen said it may partially reopen a plant in Navarra region on April 20.

Employment rules for farms were eased to bring in temporarily up to 80,000 migrants and jobless people to cover a shortfall of foreign seasonal labourers. That, officials hope, will prevent food shortages and preserve Spain’s status as the European Union’s biggest exporter of fruit and vegetables.

QUESTIONS OVER DEATH NUMBERS

For lockdown restrictions to be lifted, officials say testing has to be widened, to find carriers who may have mild or no symptoms.

The government is planning mass, quick antibody tests in coming days. Cadena Ser radio said about 62,000 people would be tested twice with an interval of 21 days to see the effect of any easing of measures on contagion.

Some Spanish media have reported in recent days that insufficient testing means the real death toll could be much higher.

Asked about that, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero told a news conference it was possible there could be time lags between the report of a death and its attribution to the virus, but that she had no further information.

Thirteen of Spain’s 17 regions have registered more deaths than usual, and in 11 of those, the number of extra fatalities is higher than the number confirmed to have died from the coronavirus, according to Reuters calculations based on data collected by the health and justice ministries.

In the central region of Castilla La Mancha, around 2,000 more people died than usual between March 15 and April 3, but fewer than 1,000 coronavirus deaths were registered during those three weeks.

Care homes for the elderly have been among the worst-hit by the pandemic, accounting for a third of all deaths, according to some estimates. But not all were the source of bad news.

In the northern Basque city of Guernica, relatives, neighbours and the local fire brigade applauded care staff at the Juan Calzado nursing home, dancing to the sound of loud pop music played via loudspeakers. The staff decided to move in with its virus-free residents for 15 days so as not to expose them to contagion from the outside, Reuters footage showed.

“I am staying home, with my other family!” said home director Visi Garcia.

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UK PM Johnson 'stable' in intensive care, needed oxygen after COVID-19 symptoms worsened

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was stable in intensive care on Tuesday after receiving oxygen support to help him battle COVID-19, while his foreign minister led the government’s response to the accelerating outbreak.

The upheaval of Johnson’s personal battle with the virus has shaken the government just as the United Kingdom enters what scientists say will be the most deadly phase of the pandemic, which has killed 5,373 people in Britain and 70,000 worldwide.

Johnson, 55, was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital across the River Thames from the House of Commons late on Sunday after suffering persistent coronavirus symptoms, including a high temperature and a cough, for more than 10 days.

But his condition rapidly deteriorated over the next 24 hours, and he was moved on Monday to an intensive care unit, where the most serious cases are treated, in case he needed to be put on a ventilator. He was still conscious, his office said.

“He is receiving standard oxygen treatment and breathing without any other assistance,” Johnson’s spokesman, who traditionally speaks without his name being published, told reporters.

“The prime minister has been stable overnight and remains in good spirits,” the spokesman said. “He has not required mechanical ventilation, or non-invasive respiratory support.”

But the absence of Johnson, the first leader of a major power to be hospitalised after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, has raised questions about who is truly in charge of the world’s fifth largest economy at such a crucial time.

While Britain has no formal succession plan should a prime minister become incapacitated, Johnson asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, 46, to deputise for him “where necessary”, Downing Street said.

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WHO LEADS?

Raab on Tuesday chaired the government’s COVID-19 emergency response meeting, though ministers refused to say who had ultimate control over the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons – a role held by the prime minister.

“There are well-developed protocols which are in place,” said Gove, who himself went into self-isolation on Tuesday after a family member displayed coronavirus symptoms.

Before being rushed to intensive care, Johnson had said he was in good spirits and Raab had told a news conference that the prime minister was still running the government, although Raab also said he had not spoken to him directly since Saturday.

British leaders do not traditionally publicise the results of their medical examinations as some U.S. presidents including Donald Trump have.

Raab, the son of a Czech-born Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1938, takes the helm at a pivotal time. Government scientists see the death toll rising until at least April 12 and Britain must ultimately decide when to lift the lockdown.

“The government’s business will continue,” said Raab, a staunch Brexit supporter who has served as foreign minister for less than a year.

Johnson’s move to intensive care added to the sense of upheaval that the coronavirus has wrought after its spread caused global panic, sowed chaos through financial markets and prompted the virtual shutdown of the world economy.

The United Kingdom is in a state of virtual lockdown, a situation due to be reviewed early next week, and some ministers have suggested it might need to be extended because some people were flouting the strict rules.

The pound dipped in Asian trading on news of Johnson’s intensive care treatment but then rallied in London trading. Against the dollar, sterling traded to a high of $1.2349, up 0.9% on the session.

CRITICISM

Even before coronavirus, Johnson had had a tumultuous year.

He won the top job in July 2019, renegotiated a Brexit deal with the European Union, fought a snap election in December which he won resoundingly and then led the United Kingdom out of the European Union on Jan 31 – promising to seal a Brexit trade deal by the end of this year.

The government has said it is not planning to seek an extension to that deadline in light of the epidemic.

Johnson has faced criticism for initially approving a much more modest response to the coronavirus outbreak than other major European leaders, though he then imposed a lockdown as projections showed half a million people could die.

He tested positive for the virus on March 26.

After 10 days of isolation in an apartment at Downing Street, he was admitted to hospital. He was last seen in a video message posted on Twitter on Friday when he looked weary.

James Gill, a doctor and a clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School, said the news of Johnson’s admission to intensive care was “worrying” but not completely out of line with other people suffering complications.

“So far we have seen a deterioration in line with other cases of COVID-19 infections,” he said. “Admission to ITU is worrying news, (but) this is not altogether uncommon with this disease, and may be looked at from a positive that the PM is getting the very best care that the NHS (Britain’s state-run National Health Service) has to offer.”

President Trump said all Americans were praying for his recovery, and other world leaders sent messages of support.

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Riding out the pandemic, Rio surfers catch a wave of controversy

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Despite stay-at-home orders aiming to protect people from the new coronavirus, many of Rio de Janeiro’s famous beaches have been buzzing with surfers seeking to catch the season’s first big swell.

That has thrown surfers such as Guilherme Faria headlong into a public debate about the legal limits on outdoor sports – in his case, a question that will be soon be decided by a judge.

The 22-year-old said he was catching 9-foot curlers on Copacabana Beach on Sunday morning when a policeman with a whistle between his teeth hauled him out of the water and down to the station.

“Unfortunately, surfing is now a crime,” said Faria, who received a court summons – seen by Reuters – after his booking. “I hope I don’t end up with a criminal record for something as silly as that.”

A few hours later, even with the threat of a fine, Faria and his board were back in the Copacabana surf.

Like thousands of Rio’s famously sporty locals, Faria could not resist the call of the outdoors. The esplanade lining the city shore is packed with joggers. Groups of spandex-clad bicyclists zip up and down the city’s serpentine mountain roads.

On March 17, city and state officials implored residents to stay at home, nominally closing beaches and city parks as the coronavirus pandemic tears through Latin America’s third-largest city.

Rio is Brazil’s second-most infected state, according to the Health Ministry, which reported 12,056 confirmed coronavirus cases across the country as of Monday.

Some athletes have complied, citing the danger of spreading the disease en route to beaches. Many argue that sports-related injuries could divert vital medical resources away from the coronavirus fight. The debate has also roiled other solo sports, from skiing to climbing.

“There are different opinions among different sports associations. New guidelines come out every week,” said Ana Carolina Corte, the official doctor for the Brazilian Olympic Committee. She added that some sports could still be done “alone, without crowds, without running alongside other people.”

Even legal decrees have been subject to debate.

The governor of Rio state, for instance, banned “spending time at beaches,” as some might describe a surfer bobbing in the water, but not a roller skater gliding past.

Yet some surfers have argued they merely cross over the sand to enter the ocean or even enter the water via rocky outcroppings.

Still, many athletes acknowledge their concerns pale next to the challenge Brazil faces. State governors, including those in Rio de Janeiro, have warned that underfunded public healthcare systems could soon collapse.

Bruno Bocayuva, a surfing journalist in Rio, has given up surfing for weeks in favor of jumping rope, doing push-ups and keeping in shape any way he can.

“I’m really missing that sensation of being in the water, of paddling, of catching a wave, of connecting with nature through surf, which provides such an intimate connection. But I know this is the moment to think of the collective good,” he said.

“I’m letting this wave pass, to surf the next one in the near future.”

BITTER DEBATE

Perhaps due to its high visibility or anti-establishment vibes, surfing has emerged as unique target of ire across the region.

In Costa Rica, a video on social media last week showed a police officer apparently firing a gun in the direction of 28-year-old law student Rafael Villavicencio as he left the water.

Reuters could not verify the video’s authenticity. The head of the Costa Rican police said they had opened an investigation into the incident.

“Although it’s true that the surfers weren’t following orders, that doesn’t mean an official should act in that way,” said Villavicencio’s lawyer, Rafael Brenes.

Argentina’s media heaped scorn on one surfer for entering the country from Brazil with boards on the roof of his car. The man later violated a mandatory quarantine, according to police.

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez called him “an idiot” on national television.

Similarly, Peruvian authorities raised eyebrows when they nabbed two surfers in a highly publicized operation involving a police helicopter.

In Brazil, a surf-crazed nation where urban beaches are often clogged before and after work, the debate has taken an acrimonious and even political turn.

President Jair Bolsonaro has berated Rio Governor Wilson Witzel for closing beaches, calling the move “dictatorial.”

Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a congressman from Sao Paulo state, just down the coast, argued in a Facebook post on Thursday for a decree to allow surfing that conforms with social distancing.

With or without a decree, many surfers are simply doing what they can to dodge attention – and each other.

“I came early to avoid this total isolation controversy,” said Ricardo Bacão, a 65-year-old surfer from Rio’s Ipanema neighborhood, as he exited the water on Sunday morning.

“In the same way that people run, they hike, they ride bikes, somebody can grab a board, leave the house, go directly to the water, paddle and go home.”

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