President Alberto Fernández refused to roll back newly tightened measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 on Friday, as the Health Ministry confirmed a new daily record of 29,472 infections in 24 hours.
The Peronist leader – who has faced fierce criticism from the opposition since his announcement of new restrictions earlier in the week – said he would not tolerate a “rebellion” from provincial and regional governments over the new rules.
On Wednesday Fernández said Argentina’s creaking health system needed to be protected and said he would extend an existing nighttime curfew, trim business hours and order the shuttering of schools in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA) for two weeks.
“Laws are made to be complied with," he warned ominously, adding that those who did not like them could “go to the justice system.”
Some are preparing to do just that, with the Buenos Aires City government ready to take its battle to keep schools open all the way to the Supreme Court. Some individual institutions have hinted they may ignore a 15-day ban on face-to-face classes unilaterally, while the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition has also threatened to file an injunction with the courts.
Meanwhile, restaurant and bar owners are organising themselves in opposition to the decision to trim their working hours, all but eliminating dinner service.
'Sillas al Revés' movement published a statement Friday saying it would "not abide by the government decree," branding it "an outrage against our sector." Arguing that eating and drinking out is "not contagious," it said establishments would remain open until 11pm, despite new rules ordering them to close earlier.
“In a State of law, the laws are enforced. I am not here to tolerate the indiscipline of many restaurants full of people," the president said, responding to those reports. "Only by reducing circulation and human contact can we contain the number of infections.”
The president spoke after an emergency summit with Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who asked the president to make a U-turn on school closures. Instead, Fernández held firm, refusing to budge.
The president insisted that with the start of classes in March "the curve rose precipitously." He said that the greatest "increase in infections occurs among people between nine and 19 years old."
The Health Ministry’s daily update revealed that 2,658,628 people have now been infected with Covid-19 since the pandemic began, after Argentina broke through 29,000 cases in a day for the first time. Officials also confirmed 160 fatalities, lifting the death toll to 59,084.
Intensive care units are at 64.3 percent occupancy nationwide, rising to 73.8 percent in the AMBA region.
Government data shows that a total of 6.1 million individuals have now been vaccinated against Covid-19, with close to 5.4 million having received one jab and 793,288 having received the second. New batches of 864,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab and an unknown number of Sputnik V are expected to arrive over the weekend.
Once again, the highest number of new cases were recorded in Buenos Aires Province (15,166), Buenos Aires City (3,313) and Córdoba (2,332).
"The situation is dramatic. Ambulances are circling for hours looking for beds for the patient. The health system no longer has places. The decisions that [the authorities] make are horrible, but it is a situation of war. They have to understand it." Claudio Belocopitt, owner of Swiss Medical Group, one of the largest private medicine firms in Argentina, told Radio con Vos in an interview on Friday.
Fernández announced that he was ordering a tightening of measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19 on Wednesday, as fears over the nation’s health system intensified. It met fierce criticism from the opposition and parents, as well as prompting a cacerolazo pot-banging protest in and around Buenos Aires.
Much of the anger focused on the decision to suspend face-to face classes at schools, though rival politicians also criticised the economic impact of the restrictions.
Fernández said that, as from Friday, the existing nighttime curfew would be extended from 8pm to 6am for those not considered essential workers, with business hours restricted to 10 hours between 9am and 7pm, including restaurants and bars, which can only remain open afterwards for home delivery. All recreational, social, cultural, sports and religious activities in closed places are suspended, while shopping centres and malls must also close.
Most controversially, he said that in-person classes at all three educational levels in the AMBA region will be suspended for the next two weeks as from Monday, he added, with all learning to be completed virtually until the end of April.
Fernández, who on Wednesday was given the all-clear by doctors after contracting Covid-19, despite having had two Sputnik V vaccine shots, called on citizens to be careful.
"Let's be strict [with ourselves], let's be careful,” he said. “All efforts seem insufficient in light of the [rise in] infections."
"None of us would like to stop face-to-face education, but we cannot not do it in the conditions we are in,” he added.
The president invited Argentina’s provincial governments to follow suit and adopt the same measures, but not all are keen. The provinces of Santa Fe, Córdoba, Mendoza, Tucumán and Misiones have said they will not follow the instructions, while Chaco, Formosa and Catamarca have said they will follow suit.
The Juntos por el Cambio coalition fiercely criticised the measures, with PRO party leader Patricia Bullrich declaring that “the bureaucrats who collect their salaries every month have won."
"Many are left without work and the children without education," she told the TN news channel. “We need more intelligent measures [and] the government did not announce any kind of aid.”
Protests also took place outside the Olivos presidential residence just outside the capital. Videos circulating on social networks showed demonstrators banging pots and shouting obscenities at the president.
Fernández also said Wednesday that Argentina’s security forces would be deployed to “enforce” the new measures, adding that the military would also be mobilised to “collaborate on healthcare” activities.
Addressing the decision to restrict nighttime movement to essential workers only, Fernández pointed out that "the greatest risk of transmission occurs at nocturnal social and recreational activities, where there are not two metres of distance, there are crowds, the facemask is scarcely used and also in closed spaces, without adequate ventilation."