Mexico is reopening after reluctantly shutting down

With a lack of government help, many of its people need to go back to work to survive.

Mexico, the world’s 6th most popular tourist destination, is open for tourism business despite its cases of COVID-19 being on the rise. The pressure to reopen comes from economic need, as tourism accounts for about 10 percent of Mexico’s economy, directly. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a country where the informal economy dominates at about 60 percent of the workforce. 

Reluctant to close before its big bang Easter tourism season, Mexico eventually did so. Still, the flights kept coming, from the U.S. and Europe. The cruise ships kept docking. And many people (including its president, the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO) hoped that somehow, Mexico would simply weather the storm, out of as much of a stubborn sense of nationalistic pride as a very staunch reality: staying at home and not going out to work is a privilege afforded to few, who in general already are privileged enough to have savings or a job that can be done without having to leave the house. 

Mexico was closed to tourism until June 1, when the first tourists arrived in Los Cabos and then to Cancún on June 11. Cancún (the country’s most visited international tourist destination besides Mexico City) was the 8th most-searched-for destination from within the U.S. in June, according to Skyscanner.

Meanwhile, Mexican Finance Minister Arturo Herrera announced on Thursday (June 25) that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Just days prior, he had stood next to AMLO at a pair of events: neither wore a face mask. NEWSLETTERSBeast Travel DigestGet the entire world in your inbox.By Clicking “Subscribe” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy

But for now, from Mexico City to Oaxaca and beyond, many parts of the country are bustling in a more or less typical manner. Markets are open with many workers wearing face masks and others not. People are walking the streets of Puerto Vallarta again, though the federal government still recommends that people stay at home unless it’s necessary to go out. The states that are open, among them the country’s top destinations, as of this publication, are open at 30 percent capacity. 

Half of the country remains on lockdown: no restaurants, no hotels, no beaches. Even in states with lower cases of COVID-19, like Baja California Sur, individual businesses alert mostly obliging patrons that face masks are required, especially upon entering supermarkets and pharmacies, while waiters call out from behind a face mask to passersby on the streets, offering margaritas now that the months-long restrictions on alcohol sales (to prevent gatherings) have been lifted.

While the land border is closed, if you go to Mexico via air, you will not be alone. Cancún is getting back on track with dozens of flights per day and Mexico City receiving hundreds, including international. These numbers represent about a quarter of pre-pandemic normalcy, but flight frequency is expected to rise soon. You are likely to have your temperature tested at the airport. In international tourist towns such as Los Cabos, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, and Mexico City, you’ll find that every business aimed at travelers is eager to welcome you inside. Perhaps only a small percentage would do so begrudgingly. 

This screenshot from a video posted on Facebook by the Nogales, Sonora, city government shows a motorist being sprayed with disinfectant south of the border. Courtesy: City of Nogales, Sonora, via Facebook.

Mexico entered its lockdown a bit later than the rest of the world and like everyone else, hoped it would be short. But reality sank in. There would be no quick way around COVID-19, especially not for a country without stimulus packages and vast unemployment options. Eventually, and sooner than later, people would have to get back to work. Which is exactly where we find ourselves now. Being willing to forgo its traditionally busy national tourism explosion around Easter was a big step, and likely prevented an outbreak at that time. But the outbreak has arrived. And the bills won’t pay themselves. 

In Todos Santos during what would typically have been Easter vacation, citizens blocked the city off from the hour-plus highway route north from Los Cabos with mounds of dirt and sand; and east from La Paz with a citizen’s brigade wearing face masks and monitoring people for their own face masks as they left and re-entered the town. 

The goal of the blockade, which lasted more than a week, was to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the town, which has a small emergency medical center but depends on the La Paz and Los Cabos areas for hospitals. This just weeks after a group of University of Texas-Austin spring breakers, with the blessing of their travel agents, decided to continue with their trip to Los Cabos and 27 wound up testing positive for the virus. 

Juan David Orozco, chef and co-owner of Jardín Alquimia in Todos Santos, has picked up side jobs as he found himself without work. To reinvent how the bar can sell cocktails, Jardín Alquimia began bottling signature cocktails for home delivery. To cover the income he’s lost from the bar, Orozco has taken to delivering fruit and veggie boxes from a local organic farm and selling his home-baked bread across the town. 

“We closed really early; at the beginning of March and have been closed since,” Orozco says. “The timing of this crisis came at a really inconvenient moment of the year. We were having a good season, and here the tourist season starts to go down in the summer, so we lost four months of our good season.” 

Heavily populated by full-time foreign residents (many retired) who followed the World Health Organization’s recommended lockdown from the beginning, Orozco doesn’t imagine even the slow season seeing normal revenue as many such residents, loyal clients who help the bar get through the slow summer months, continue with voluntary shelter-in-place lifestyles. 

Now, Jardín Alquimia is set to open the last week of June, right as Todos Santos enters the slowest part of the year for tourism. State laws in Baja California Sur have forced the bar to close by 10 p.m. Without typical revenue, the bar won’t be able to pay musicians and so, Orozco says, temporarily the bar will lose its beloved music vibe and its regular Wednesday night popularity even as it ups food options in effort to counterbalance. 

Todos Santos

The number of COVID-19 infections has doubled in Latin America over the past two months, topping 2 million in late June; Mexico with 200,000 cases since the pandemic began. Numerous sources estimate the number to be much higher, with wide reports of falsely attributed deaths to pneumonia for lack of testing and in effort to avoid offering financial assistance, per government order, to families who lost someone to the pandemic. 

In late June, the World Bank estimated that Mexico’s economy would fall by about 7.5 percent, compared with 6.1 percent in the U.S. and 5.2 percent worldwide. Much of this fall can be directly linked to the sudden drop in international tourism brought on by the pandemic. 

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