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World-famous beach emptied by coronavirus

Covid-19 has emptied Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on the deserted seafront.

Posted: Jun 2, 2020 1:01 PM
Updated: Jun 2, 2020 1:01 PM

Miguel Oliveira firmly pushes down on the limes and sugar in the cocktail shaker, for the first time that day. It's noon, and this, together with the sparsely-populated promenade his kiosk bar sits on, is just one sign that something is wrong in Rio de Janeiro.

"It's never been this bad," he sighs. "We're open to see if we can sell something -- being closed is worse." He doubts business will get better any time soon, the only bright spot being that "at least the rent is postponed till next year."

Copacabana beach. If you've never been, you probably want to. If you know it, wherever you are in the world right now, you probably fancy a day there now. But the world's best known beach, has slammed into its best known virus.

Four years ago, I last saw the beach teeming at the heart of Rio's Olympic dream. Bars were unable to find you a seat; every inch of the seafront was overbooked; swimwear and a disregard for time or worry was obligatory. Even the heavy police presence didn't stop the dance.

Now, the beach is closed. Face masks are mandatory. The shops, restaurants, bars -- and most of the beachfront kiosks, except Miguel's -- are closed. Covid-19 has brought out the cops in Copacabana. Even the music is silent, replaced by police sirens, warning reluctant locals to get off the beach.

The Maritime Firemen brigade -- a mix of firefighters and lifeguards -- drive the length of the beach slowly, their speakers blaring out the demand people leave the sands. Lt. Col. Fernando Melo said the majority of people adhere to the beach closure, but consistently one or two figures stroll or gather on the shoreline, oblivious to why the sands are so abnormally empty.

"At the start, when people didn't believe corona, we had gatherings at the kiosks, parties at night," Melo said. "The schools were closed so people would come to the sand with their kids."

Now it's better -- but the joggers, walkers and dogs all line the sidewalk. One group is missing, however: tourists. Foreigners are barred entry into Brazil temporarily. (CNN was granted entry by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry to report).

Locals are finding it is hard to run in a mask. On his daily jog, Ronaldo Nussbaum is maskless. He said he has asthma, and needs to get the air. "Some days they have a lot of people, but today it's OK."

Nussbaum is one of a majority of Brazilians who voted for President Jair Bolsonaro, who has called the virus a little flu and described locally imposed lockdowns in cities like Rio and São Paulo as a "terrible disgrace."

"He said a lot of things that I don't like. But I just voted for him. My mother she loves him. He can (say) bad words, but I can't," he laughed.

Nussbaum reflects a shifting public opinion of the president, who recent polls have shown now has a 50% disapproval rating. I ask if he will vote again for him? "I'm not sure," he said.

At times, volleyball matches continue unabated. Runners and surfers carry on. The police ride ATVs on the sand, waving people off, but they swiftly return. On the sand, and in the occasionally deserted streets, the homeless stand out: loud and lonely in this new landscape. The Belmont Hotel, iconic on this beachfront, has closed for the first time in 97 years.

The very rhythm that defines Copacabana has stopped, and the fear growing here -- among businesses, and even those locals briefly enjoying the space -- is when and if it will return again, and whether it will be the same joyous pace as before.

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