Officials from the national and Buenos Aires City governments expressed concern on Monday, after widespread breaches of health and safety protocol were seen at bars and restaurants across the capital over the weekend.
Large numbers of people visited eating and drinking establishments on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, taking advantage of the good weather to enjoy a trip out of their homes. It was the first weekend during which bars and restaurants in the capital were legally allowed to serve customers seated at tables outside their buildings since March 20, when restrictions to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in Argentina were first introduced.
However, though many porteños, bars and bistros followed the rules – using face masks and respecting social distancing guidelines, – a handful of establishments either did not or found themselves unable to enforce restrictions.
On Friday, images of crowded scenes outside bars in the Palermo neighbourhood began circulating online. Similar photographs and videos, from other barrios across the capital, followed on Saturday and Sunday.
City Health Minister Fernán Quirós admitted on Monday to journalists that the images that circulated were “not good.” Many, given that they were imbibing and dining, were not using face masks.
Quirós urged citizens to “respect a distance of a metre and a half, [to] wear a mask and take it off only when something is ingested." He said he was confident that irresponsible behaviour could be reversed.
City officials closed at least 12 establishments in Palermo, Liniers, Agronomía, Constitución and Caballito on Saturday night that were not following the rules, which include restrictions on the sale of "take away" alcohol after 8pm and strict limits on the presence of customers inside their premises.
Nevertheless, Quirós defended the move to allow eating and drinking establishments to serve customers, which arrive just as coronavirus infection numbers are at their highest point to date in Argentina.
The health minister pinned the blame on a few bad eggs and said Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s administration had decided "to take into the public space something that has already been happening in houses," given the challenges facing bars and restaurants.
The gastronomy industry has been one of the economic sectors most damaged by restrictions put in place to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in Argentina.
Officials in the Buenos Aires Province and national governments condemned rule-breaking bars and restaurants, as well as customers, and called on citizens to be responsible.
Santiago Cafiero, President Alberto Fernández's Cabinet chief, demanded over the weekend that authorities in the City “enforce the protocols which it committed itself to."
Underlining his opposition to the revised rules for bars and restaurants, Health Quality Secretary Arnaldo Medina said he disagreed with the decision, describing it as a “very important risk situation.” He observed that “healthcare workers are stressed and exhausted" given the rise in infections over the past two months.
To date, the country has recorded more than 480,000 confirmed cases and close to 10,000 fatalities. More than 70 percent of all infections have been recorded in the capital and its surrounding neighbourhoods, known as the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA).
Officials in Buenos Aires Province, the country’s most populous region with the highest incidence rate, also expressed fears over the impact of the re-opening.
Provincial Security Minister Sergio Berni said the scenes were sure to guarantee a rise in infections.
“It’s not necessary to be an infectologist to know how it will end. It is an equation that is not discussed: greater circulation, greater contagion," he said.
Provincial Health Minister Daniel Gollan also criticised irresponsible behaviour, saying it was "playing to the limit."
“Until there are two or three weeks of sustained and significant decline in cases, one cannot consider that activities that involve more circulation should be enabled," he said.
Healthcare professionals generally expressed concern and anger over the scenes. Laura Barcán, a doctor specialising in infectious disease at the City’s Hospital Italiano, said she was not in favour of the decision to grant bars and restaurants permission to restart table service.
"This measure contrasts heavily with what is happening,” said Barcán, a member of the Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases (SADI). “The number of cases is increasing and although [the risk of] contagion is lower in the open air, it is not zero."