Brazil's governors today rebelled against President Jair Bolsonaro's call for life to return to pre-coronavirus normalcy, saying his proposal to reopen schools and businesses runs counter to recommendations from health experts and endangers Latin America's largest population.

State governors, many of whom have adopted strict measures to limit gatherings in their regions, defied the President's instructions in a nationwide address yesterday that they lift the restrictions and limit isolation only to the elderly and those with longstanding health problems.

The governors weren't the only defiant ones. Virus plans challenged by Bolsonaro were upheld by the Supreme Court. The heads of both congressional houses criticised his televised speech. Companies donated supplies to state anti-virus efforts. And even some of his staunch supporters joined his detractors.

In a videoconference today between Bolsonaro and governors from Brazil's southeast region, Sao Paulo Governor João Doria threatened to sue the federal Government if it attempted to interfere with his efforts to combat the virus, according to video of their private meeting reviewed by AP.

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro puts on a mask during a press conference on the coronavirus at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro puts on a mask during a press conference on the coronavirus at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia.

"We are here, the four governors of the southeast region, in respect for Brazil and Brazilians and in respect for dialogue and understanding," said Doria, who supported Bolsonaro's 2018 presidential bid.

"But you are the president and you have to set the example. You have to be the representative to command, guide and lead this country, not divide it."

There are 78 new cases of Covid-19, including 73 confirmed cases and five new probable cases, Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says. The new cases bring the total number of confirmed or probable infections to 283.

Bolsonaro responded by accusing Doria of riding his coattails to the governorship, then turning his back. "If you don't get in the way, Brazil will take off and emerge from the crisis. Stop campaigning," the far-right president said.

He told reporters in the capital, Brasilia, that he has listened to his US counterpart, Donald Trump, and found their perspectives to be rather similar.

A police officer stands at the ready in a small market in Rio.
A police officer stands at the ready in a small market in Rio.

"What needs to be done? Put the people to work. Preserve the elderly, preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that," Bolsonaro said. "If we cower, opt for the easy discourse, everyone stays home, it will be chaos. No one will produce anything, there will be unemployment, refrigerators will go empty, no one will be able to pay bills."

He has found some support among his base — #BolsonaroIsRight was trending atop Brazilian Twitter — but such backing has been largely drowned out in public by a week of nightly protests from many of those respecting self-isolation, who lean from their windows to bang pots and pans.

His Administration has also faced criticism from economists including Armínio Fraga, a former central bank governor, and Claudio Ferraz, a professor at Rio de Janeiro's Pontifical Catholic University.

"Brazil is seeing something unique, an insurrection of governors," Ferraz wrote on Twitter.

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"This will become a new topic in political science: checks and balances by governors in a Federal System."

Candido Bracher, president of Brazil's largest private bank, Itaú Unibanco, criticised Bolsonaro's crisis management in an interview with the newspaper O Globo. His bank and companies like oil giant Petrobras, iron miner Vale and the brewery Ambev have made large donations to state governments for helping fight the outbreak.

Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, another former ally of Bolsonaro, said in the videoconference that he won't heed the President's call to loosen social distancing protocols.

Last week, the Governor announced he would shut down airports and interstate roads, which Bolsonaro annulled by decree contending that only the federal Government can adopt such measures. By the time the President took to the airwaves yesterday, a Supreme Court justice had ruled in favour of Witzel and the governors.

Two days earlier Brazil's top court issued another ruling allowing Sao Paulo state to stop repaying federal Government debt amounting to US$400 million so that it can beef up its health sector. The decision may set a precedent for other states.

As of today, Brazil had about 2400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 57 deaths related to the outbreak.

-AP