Puerto Peñasco bets on heavy restrictions to reactivate tourist economy

PUERTO PEÑASCO, SONORA— The sun shines brightly as it rises over the Sea of Cortez in beautiful Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), in the northern Mexican state of Sonora.

The intense summer heat draws beads of sweat on Magdalena Reyes Villalba’s forehead.

It’s still early in the morning. There are hardly any tourists yet along the Malecón, the pier at the heart of Puerto Peñasco. 

But Reyes Villalba is hard at work, hanging colorful garments over the sidewalk outside her booth, where she has been selling clothes, jewelry and other trinkets for more than 15 years.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this year especially tough. The city locked down to curb the spread of the virus during what is normally the busiest time of the year. The projected economic losses are staggering.

Tourism officials in Puerto Peñasco said visitors to the beach-side community brought in nearly $100 million to the local economy last year. But because of the new coronavirus, this year’s estimates barely top $35 million.

“In my case, (the booth) is my only source of income,” Reyes Villalba said. “We have a family, so it was really difficult. But it still is difficult because we haven’t seen the number of tourists that we had hoped.”

Puerto Peñasco, more commonly known as Rocky Point in Arizona, is trying to orchestrate a delicate balance between managing the impacts of the global pandemic and drawing visitors to its cash-strapped businesses.

Nearly 85 percent of the businesses are dependent on tourists, the overwhelming majority from Arizona.

On Aug. 1, the local government reopened the expansive beaches lining the city’s coastline as part of the latest phase in its reopening strategy. The move came nearly six weeks after the city began welcoming visitors again. 

“I think this is a good time to come visit us because Peñasco remains a destination that has abided by safety protocols, that has abided by prevention efforts, and has maintained confirmed cases low,” Mayor Kiko Munro said. 

Since June 17, more than 33,000 people have visited Rocky Point, he added. That’s a small fraction of the number the city normally draws during the summer. 

All visitors, and the businesses that cater to them, must follow strict guidelines, even at the newly reopened beaches, or risk a hefty price. The rules include wearing masks at all times, doing regular temperature checks and sanitizing frequently. 

Beach-goers will encounter additional restrictions. The city has designated access points to beaches, where they can ensure that visitors are complying with their guidelines. The city limited the hours the beaches are open. Police and federal officers enforce social distancing. 

“We’ll have to see if this experiment will work. We’ll have to see if more people don’t get sick,” said German Palacio. “I do hope that it works.”

He owns The Point, a restaurant at the Malecón overlooking the stretch of resorts along the popular Sandy Beach. 

Oswaldo Luna, left, and Ramón Vaca, employees at The Point, prepare to open the restaurant for the day. The owner estimates business has decreased by as much as 80% because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lot is at stake for local businesses. After shutting down for three of the busiest months, owners are eager to make some money, and they understand the reopened beaches could draw even more people to the city, and to their shops.

“We’ve already lost the entire year. There no way to make up for that,” Palacio said. “Right now, we’re just staying open so that our employees can make some money, and us too. But it won’t be a short-term recovery.”

COVID-19 remains a big concern. While the state of Sonora reports relatively few confirmed cases and deaths in Puerto Peñasco, local doctors said the numbers are much higher. 

Nonetheless, there appears to be a consensus among businesses and government officials to reopen as safely as possible, in hopes of luring more visitors, the economic lifeline to the city. 

A checkpoint is a ‘sanitation filter’

The local government in Puerto Peñasco set up "sanitation tunnels" outside key points throughout the city, such as the state-run General Hospital, to fight COVID-19.

One of the tools city officials rolled out early on is a “sanitation filter,” a checkpoint to the north of the city that all visitors must drive through.

The checkpoint aims to keep out visitors infected with COVID-19.

It’s manned by Mexican National Guard troops, local police and tourism officials. 

Since June, they’ve processed more than 13,000 vehicles carrying U.S. and Mexican visitors, according to the city. 

When a driver approaches, one of the tourism officials asks them where they are staying, and logs that information. All visitors are required to have an existing reservation.

Every fifth car is chosen to undergo a rapid antibody test. Local paramedics will prick their finger, draw a drop of blood and wait just minutes for the results. Those who test negative can proceed. Anyone who tests positive is turned away.

“The police and National Guard work together to make sure that the person takes off,” said Rafael Mendivil, Puerto Peñasco’s tourism director.

Since the beaches reopened Aug. 1, officials administered more than 150 tests. At least six of them were positive, including several Arizona visitors. They turned back the six vehicles.

Even some visitors are not convinced about the city’s strategy. George McBride, a Cave Creek resident, owns a condo in Puerto Peñasco and is a Mexican permanent resident. He visits often and said the procedures are annoying, but that he understood why they are in place. 

“The face mask makes a difference,” he said, as he was waiting for the results of his test, which came back negative. “If they’re going to catch someone with the disease, one in five cars … I’m not sure how effective that will be. This disease is going to spread.”

Other visitors welcomed the additional screenings and safety guidelines in Puerto Peñasco. Chad Jordan drove from Gilbert with his family to spend a few days at the beach.

They waited in the car at the checkpoint as a Red Cross paramedic administered the antibody test. As he waited for the results, which also came back negative, he explained that they are taking their own precautions, such as staying at a house instead of a hotel, in order to avoid large crowds.

“We’ve got three little kids and plane tickets and everything else is always a long process to plan, so without having a lot of uncertainty to be able to make the drive and come to the beach is important to us, and we are definitely looking forward to it,” he said.

‘Tourism won’t be the same’

As Puerto Peñasco prepared to reopen beaches, tourism and elected officials worked with Mexican federal officials and local committees to draw up new rules for beachgoers.

The rules are an extension of the guidelines the city has had in place since it began to ease its lockdown in June.

“The world is changing and will be changed from now on. And tourism has also changed. Tourism won’t be the same,” said Hector Vásquez del Mercado, the president of the Puerto Peñasco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Under the plan, access to the city’s beaches is restricted. They established designated public access points and closed off all others.

For example, La Cholla and Hermosa beaches each have a single access point. Police set up controls to limit the number of people, to randomly administer tests and take temperatures. Everyone is then funneled through a “sanitation tunnel,” spraying disinfectant, to get to the beach.

At Sandy Beach, each of the resorts is responsible for limiting the number of its guests in concession areas.

Recreational activities are allowed only from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with two additional hours designated for exercise in the morning. 

Masks can be taken off at the beach, but social distancing guidelines are enforced.

Beach vendors must allow following certain rules. Tents or umbrellas must be spaced out about nine feet away from each other, and they must provide trash bags or bins to discard food or any other items beachgoers touch.

The city and tourism officials posted the full guidelines, including maps with access points, to their website.

“For all the people that come to Peñasco, the security that we can offer them is proportional to how well they follow these rules,” Vasquez del Mercado said. “Why? Because it’s not just a city effort, it’s an effort by tourist and the city.” 

The Mexican Navy and federal harbor master officers will enforce these regulations. Officers and soldiers patrol the beach areas on all-terrain vehicles, especially after closing time.

Anyone caught violating rules can be fined between $100 to $120.

Do official numbers undercount cases?

Ivan Munguía Felix, a doctor in Puerto Peñasco, recovered from COVID-19 and has been tracking cases throughout the city.

One of Puerto Peñasco’s main selling points to draw visitors, and to push for a faster reopening strategy, is the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the city.

As of Thursday night, the Sonora Health Ministry reported 87 confirmed cases and 12 deaths.

But those numbers are a drastic undercount of what’s happening on the ground, according to Iván Munguía Felix, a private physician in Puerto Peñasco and a member of the mayor’s pandemic response task force. 

He created an unofficial map to track infections in the city. It shows more than 270 infections in the city, more than three times the official numbers. He said there are about 300 more cases he hasn’t added to the map. In all, he estimates there are about 500 unofficial cases.

“I’m gathering this information from all logbooks from the busiest labs in the city, and from other fellow doctors,” he said. “When I started mapping it out I saw that our number is much more different than what government officials reported.”

Munguía Felix started tracking cases after catching COVID-19 himself. He said public hospitals in the city are full and don’t have tests. They have been sending infected patients to bigger cities given a lack of funding from the state and federal government.

That’s how he believes he caught the virus, from an untested family member of an infected patient sent to Nogales.

Munguía Felix was hospitalized for 27 days, in serious condition. He credited his recovery to his brother, who is also a doctor, and a medical team that flew in from Mexico City to treat him.

When his condition improved, he resumed his private practice, doing virtual appointments instead. But Munguía Felix also continued tracking cases. His map assigns a color to each neighborhood to assess the risk.

It shows that the areas most visited by tourists, such as the Malecón and resorts, are in green, the safest level, while high transit neighborhoods away from the beaches are in red, indicating the greatest risk. 

“Businesses and hotels there are enforcing measures like tests, temperature checks, scanners, all these measures and they’ve been able to quickly detect and treat cases,” he said, citing it as an example that the city’s safety measures are working.

The problem, he said, has been resistance in inland neighborhoods to the safety protocols and growing fatigue with masks and social distancing. 

Munguía Felix said he tried reporting the cases to state and federal officials to adjust their numbers. They wouldn’t accept them because they did not come from within their own labs or hospitals, he said.

“That’s why I developed that map, because the (federal) government is not doing things well, and the state government isn’t, either, because they depend on what the federal government sends them, and ultimately, they’re the ones in charge,” he said.

Munro, Puerto Peñasco’s mayor, acknowledged the official case count is based on what the state and federal government reported.

He said the city has stepped in to help residents. In addition to the call center, they offer free testing and even free medication to treat the symptoms of those who test positive. 

“What is most concerning isn’t the confirmed cases, but the mortality rate, which is at around 10 percent,” he said. “That is very worrying,” especially for residents who have underlying health conditions, he added. 

Munro urged residents at higher risk to stay home, and asked everyone, including visitors, to continue following the safety protocols, especially the use of masks. 

Local businesses size up losses

Several tourists walk through the Malecón in Puerto Peñasco on Aug. 6, 2020. The city has reopened its beaches after five months due to COVID-19.

Many businesses and residents have praised Munro for the steps he has taken to curb the spread of the virus while allowing the local economy to open up. There are still some critics, but their concerns largely are muted against the potential economic impact brought by visitors.

“We hope that the infection rates don’t go up so Peñasco can remain open,” said Casandra Flores Ríos, a vendor at Playa Hermosa.

Her family set up tents along the beach, spaced out as required under the new guidelines. But business so far has been slow to pick up.

She and her family were out of work for nearly five months, until the beaches reopened earlier this month.

 “We also have a booth to sell artwork, but because of the pandemic, we had to close that down. We literally had to live off of our savings,” she said.

Palacio, the restaurant owner at the Malecón, said he’s been disappointed by the lack of assistance from the federal government. They have been paying taxes, bills, and other business costs, but without any income.

“We applied for help with the state, but we didn’t get anything. It seems the federal government doesn’t care to help small and midsize business owners,” he said.

For now, Palacio is looking ahead. Even though this year’s losses are difficult to overcome, he doesn’t plan on shutting down his restaurant. 

As Reyes Villalba finished hanging clothes at her booth in the Malecón, she talked about her concerns. Until there’s a vaccine, she and her family will be continually exposed to the virus.

At the same time, she believes she has little choice in the matter.

“I have to go and work because it’s our daily bread,” she said. “The fear is there, the fear that I will be infected. But we have to be here.”

Source: AZ Central

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