By Carolina Mandl and Alexandre Caverni
SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took selfies with supporters and celebrated their demonstrations in major cities on Sunday, drawing criticism from congressional leaders for encouraging large gatherings that could worsen the spreading coronavirus.
Bolsonaro also appeared to shrug off the advice of medical experts suggesting he take precautions after several members of his recent delegation to Florida tested positive for the virus.
The president tested negative for the virus, as did U.S. President Donald Trump after their meeting, but newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo reported that Bolsonaro’s medical team has suggested he remain isolated until early next week.
The paper also reported on Sunday that a seventh member of Bolsonaro’s entourage in Florida had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with four members of the trip’s support team.
Bolsonaro strode down the ramp of the presidential palace in a Brazilian soccer jersey and met a throng of protesters at the gate, where he bumped fists, grabbed cell phones to take pictures and leaned in for selfies with the crowd.
In streaming video of the encounter from his official Facebook account, Bolsonaro said it was “priceless” to see so many public demonstrations in favor of his agenda, playing down his warnings against them in a Thursday address to the nation.
“Although I suggested (a postponement), I can’t order anything because this protest isn’t mine,” Bolsonaro said. “With everything against them — the press, the virus, the recommendations — the people took to the streets.”
House Speaker Rodrigo Maia called Bolsonaro’s support for the protests “an attack against public health” and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre called it “reckless to stimulate gatherings in the streets” in separate written statements.
Bolsonaro fired back in an interview to CNN Brasil: “I’d like them to go out in the street and see how they’re received.”
However, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta echoed concerns in a separate interview with the network, reiterating that large gatherings were a mistake and comparing his warning to anti-tobacco advisories, which people ignore at their peril.
Although the coronavirus was slow to catch on in Latin America, the number of confirmed cases in Brazil has jumped to 200 on Sunday from just over a dozen a week before. Neighboring Argentina and Peru said Sunday they were closing their borders.
Bolsonaro played up Sunday’s demonstrations in cities from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to Belem and Porto Alegre, with over three dozen Twitter posts with videos and photos of crowds.
He insisted that the demonstrations showed support for his agenda and not attacks against any particular adversaries. Public health concerns aside, many have warned Bolsonaro against encouraging the protests in light of the vociferous attacks by some organizers against democratic institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court.
“I’m a Brazilian patriot and I want this country cleaned up. No coronavirus is going to keep me from defending Brazil against the crooks in Congress,” said protester Claudia Santos at a demonstration along Copacabana beach in Rio.
(Reporting by Carolina Mandl and Alexandre Caverni; Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro and Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker)