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El Salvador awaits end to deadlock over lifting virus curfew

Last Updated Jun 12, 2020 at 6:16 pm EDT

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Three months into a mandatory lockdown, Salavdorans waited Friday for a reaction from President Nayib Bukele after the country’s congress passed legislation over his strong objections that would let them leave their homes.

The Legislative Assembly passed legislation early Friday that would extend a state of emergency in the country for another two weeks, but eliminate the nearly universal mandatory stay-at-home order except for those who tested positive for COVID-19 and those returning from abroad.

The body approved it after failing to reach an agreement with administration negotiators, so it was unclear whether Bukele would accept it.

Bukele has imposed the strictest measures in the region to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, including sending people caught violating order to government-run containment centres for monthlong stays. He has resisted loosening the stay-at-home order, arguing that the country’s medical system could be quickly overwhelmed, resulting in much greater loss of life.

The constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court has determined multiple times — most recently this week — that the government’s decrees are unconstitutional without congressional backing, and it urged the congress to pass legislation that would provide a legal foundation. Bukele has responded that the justices are ordering the deaths of thousands.

René Portillo Cuadra, a lawmaker from the conservative Arena party, said the legislation passed Friday contains nothing that the court had determined unconstitutional.

There already appeared to be more cars in the streets Friday as people waited for Bukele to break his uncharacteristic silence.

The standoff raises an outside possibility that restrictions could be legally lifted altogether, according to Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer and executive director of the non-governmental organization Citizen Action.

The Supreme Court ruling against Bukele’s lockdown takes effect at midnight Friday. If Bukele refuses to let the legislature’s version of emergency restrictions take effect, people will be free to resume their lives, Escobar said.

“The citizens would not be obliged to stay inside their homes, nor would businesses be required and economic sectors that up to now have had to close their operations,” he said. “There would be no restriction on economic activities.”

The legislation also forsees a phased reopening of the economy beginning June 16. The administration has said it reached an agreement with business sectors for a gradual reopening that would also start June 16, but include five phases rather than the four proposed in the legislation.

Marcos Aleman, The Associated Press