Virus surge forces Sao Paulo to shut as Buenos Aires reopens

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People watch a movie at a cinema after almost a year of theaters being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

SAO PAULO – A swell of COVID-19 cases is halting samba steps in Brazil's biggest metropolis while Argentina's capital tiptoes its way back to the tango floor.

The two biggest cities in each of the neighboring South American countries are headed in opposite directions, reflecting how those that loosen restrictions despite warnings from scientists see a spike in the pandemic while others that keep social distancing measures in place are able to reopen their economies sooner.

Sao Paulo, home to almost 12 million people, is bracing for the worst two weeks yet in the pandemic and the growing risk that its once-resilient health care system will collapse, Gov. João Doria told reporters Wednesday. More than 75% of the city's intensive-care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients and some wards — like those of the private Albert Einstein hospital — are full for the first time.

Doria announced that the entire state, where 46 million people reside, on Saturday will face the highest level of restrictions to arrest the virus' spread. That means closure of all bars, restaurants, shopping malls and any other establishment deemed non-essential until at least March 19.

Meanwhile, the nearly 3 million residents of Buenos Aires are enjoying an easing of their restrictions, with authorization to attend movie theaters taking effect this week. On Wednesday, official figures showed just 26% of intensive-care beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. The low hospitalization rate also enabled local authorities in mid-February to reopen bars and restaurants until 2 a.m. -- something long sought in a city famous for its all-hours culture.

That means Buenos Aires' famed steakhouses are reigniting their fires, while counterparts in Sao Paulo extinguish theirs.

Buenos Aires' casinos also reopened at the end of 2020, and authorities are discussing whether the soccer-crazy city will be able to return to the stadiums soon. In Brazil, despite President Jair Bolsonaro's push to allow fans back, no local authorities are seriously considering opening stadiums. The 48,000-seater NeoQuimica arena on the east side of Sao Paulo is being used as a vaccination post.

Some good news from the Sao Paulo region came on Tuesday, when soccer great Pelé received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The 80-year-old posted the news on his social media channels.