By Gram Slattery and Sergio Queiroz
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 7 (Reuters) - Despite stay-at-home orders aiming to protect people from the new coronavirus, many of Rio de Janeiro's famous beaches have been buzzing with surfers seeking to catch the season's first big swell.
That has thrown surfers such as Guilherme Faria headlong into a public debate about the legal limits on outdoor sports - in his case, a question that will be soon be decided by a judge.
The 22-year-old said he was catching 9-foot curlers on Copacabana Beach on Sunday morning when a policeman with a whistle between his teeth hauled him out of the water and down to the station.
"Unfortunately, surfing is now a crime," said Faria, who received a court summons - seen by Reuters - after his booking. "I hope I don't end up with a criminal record for something as silly as that."
A few hours later, even with the threat of a fine, Faria and his board were back in the Copacabana surf.
Like thousands of Rio's famously sporty locals, Faria could not resist the call of the outdoors. The esplanade lining the city shore is packed with joggers. Groups of spandex-clad bicyclists zip up and down the city's serpentine mountain roads.
On March 17, city and state officials implored residents to stay at home, nominally closing beaches and city parks as the coronavirus pandemic tears through Latin America's third-largest city.
Rio is Brazil's second-most infected state, according to the Health Ministry, which reported 12,056 confirmed coronavirus cases across the country as of Monday.
Some athletes have complied, citing the danger of spreading the disease en route to beaches. Many argue that sports-related injuries could divert vital medical resources away from the coronavirus fight. The debate has also roiled other solo sports, from skiing to climbing.
"There are different opinions among different sports associations. New guidelines come out every week," said Ana Carolina Corte, the official doctor for the Brazilian Olympic Committee. She added that some sports could still be done "alone, without crowds, without running alongside other people."
Even legal decrees have been subject to debate.
The governor of Rio state, for instance, banned "spending time at beaches," as some might describe a surfer bobbing in the water, but not a roller skater gliding past.
Yet some surfers have argued they merely cross over the sand to enter the ocean or even enter the water via rocky outcroppings.
Still, many athletes acknowledge their concerns pale next to the challenge Brazil faces. State governors, including those in Rio de Janeiro, have warned that underfunded public healthcare systems could soon collapse.
Bruno Bocayuva, a surfing journalist in Rio, has given up surfing for weeks in favor of jumping rope, doing push-ups and keeping in shape any way he can.
"I'm really missing that sensation of being in the water, of paddling, of catching a wave, of connecting with nature through surf, which provides such an intimate connection. But I know this is the moment to think of the collective good," he said.
"I'm letting this wave pass, to surf the next one in the near future."
Perhaps due to its high visibility or anti-establishment vibes, surfing has emerged as unique target of ire across the region.
In Costa Rica, a video on social media last week showed a police officer apparently firing a gun in the direction of 28-year-old law student Rafael Villavicencio as he left the water.
Reuters could not verify the video's authenticity. The head of the Costa Rican police said they had opened an investigation into the incident.
"Although it's true that the surfers weren't following orders, that doesn't mean an official should act in that way," said Villavicencio's lawyer, Rafael Brenes.
Argentina's media heaped scorn on one surfer for entering the country from Brazil with boards on the roof of his car. The man later violated a mandatory quarantine, according to police.
Argentine President Alberto Fernandez called him "an idiot" on national television.
Similarly, Peruvian authorities raised eyebrows when they nabbed two surfers in a highly publicized operation involving a police helicopter.
In Brazil, a surf-crazed nation where urban beaches are often clogged before and after work, the debate has taken an acrimonious and even political turn.
President Jair Bolsonaro has berated Rio Governor Wilson Witzel for closing beaches, calling the move "dictatorial."
Bolsonaro's son Eduardo, a congressman from Sao Paulo state, just down the coast, argued in a Facebook post on Thursday for a decree to allow surfing that conforms with social distancing.
With or without a decree, many surfers are simply doing what they can to dodge attention - and each other.
"I came early to avoid this total isolation controversy," said Ricardo Bacão, a 65-year-old surfer from Rio's Ipanema neighborhood, as he exited the water on Sunday morning.
"In the same way that people run, they hike, they ride bikes, somebody can grab a board, leave the house, go directly to the water, paddle and go home." (Reporting by Gram Slattery and Sergio Queiroz; Additional reporting by Sergio Moraes in Rio de Janeiro and Alvaro Murillo in San Jose; Editing by Brad Haynes and Aurora Ellis)
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