Double headache at the Nogales border

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COVID-19 and travel restrictions, double headache for cities at the Arizona-Mexico border

Nogales, Arizona — On any given day in December, crowds of shoppers usually would dart in and out of stores advertising holiday shopping deals along Morley Avenue, the downtown business district here.

This year, the area resembles a ghost town, with empty store fronts, locked doors and few shoppers in sight. 

What usually is the most lucrative time of the year for retail businesses along the U.S.-Mexico border could become another nail in the coffin for owners who already were grappling with a decrease in shoppers crossing from Mexico and other impacts from COVID-19. 

Chris Park is the owner of La Familia, a store in downtown Nogales. After closing for seven months, he opened the store for the holidays, but sales are way down this year because Mexican shoppers, his main customer base, are unable to cross.

“I closed in the middle of March, and then I opened on Oct. 3 for the holiday season,” said Chris Park, the owner of La Familia in downtown Nogales. “But sales went down …, compared to last year, like 10 to 20% I’m selling right now.”

La Familia is one of just a handful of stores that even remain open along Morley Avenue. Park closed a second store he owns down the street and said he’s selling off inventory to get money flowing. 

Most of his customers come from across the border. But restrictions on non-essential travel at the border to stop the spread of COVID-19 have reduced the number of Mexican visitors into Arizona by nearly 25%, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The restrictions, in place since March, essentially have eliminated Park’s customer base.

The same is true for businesses in other southern Arizona cities whose economies are either partially or entirely dependent on the open flow of people, goods, and services across the border. The businesses now must adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic.

Nogales, the state’s principal commercial and passenger gateway to Mexico, is especially vulnerable.

The city’s budget is funded by sales taxes, usually a reliable source of income in a border city where nearly every aspect of daily life is dictated by the international boundary that separates it from the twin city that shares its name on the Mexican side. 

“October to January are the best months that we have when it comes to comparison reports financially every year,” Nogales Mayor Arturo Gariño said, referring to the method the city uses to track sales tax revenue.

“This year it’s not going to be that way. So we’re going to see come February … if we’re down on our sales tax and everything,” he added. “Most likely we will, but I don’t know how much it’s going to be.” 

This could spell trouble for the city, and for its residents, who are already among the hardest hit in Arizona by the pandemic and whose economic fortunes are closely tied to what happens at the border crossings.

Ivan Caballero, an employee at La Familia store in downtown Nogales, places toys into a shopping cart to take to the main store. He was out of work for seven months when the store closed, but work has been very slow and he fears they will have to shut down again.

Nogales resident Ivan Caballero has worked at La Familia for 20 years. He was one of the hundreds of employees out of a job when businesses in downtown Nogales shut down in March. 

He became dependent on unemployment and other government aid to support his family, including his six children. When many federal benefits began to expire in the summer, he struggled, Caballero said. 

But then he got the call that his boss would reopen the store in October, even though he would only bring back three of the 11 workers he employed before the pandemic. Caballero was one of them.

“I felt much more relaxed. I have many children and I have to work to support them, so I was happy,” he said. “But then again, I’m also a bit afraid because the virus is stronger now. People are not giving it enough importance, and I think it’s stronger right now. But my need is greater so I have to be here, dando chingazos,” working hard, he said.

Caballero and Park’s experiences illustrate the economic challenges everyday people face around the state and the country as a disjointed response to the pandemic has failed to contain the virus that causes COVID-19.

In Nogales and other cities located along Arizona’s border, the travel restrictions agreed upon by the U.S. and Mexican governments have brought additional hardship while doing little to keep the virus from spreading.

Border region an active hot spot

Cars with U.S. travelers line up at the DeConcini border crossing to travel south into Mexico on Dec. 17, 2020, despite restrictions on non-essential travel.

One of the major consequences of the travel restrictions has been how uneven the rules have been enforced on both sides of the border.

While northbound traffic from Mexico into the U.S. has slowed down greatly, U.S. visitors are still able to cross into Mexico unrestricted. 

Retail businesses in Arizona reel at the lack of customers from Mexico, but large numbers of U.S. citizens and legal residents have continued to travel south, most recently in large waves to spend the holidays with relatives in Mexico, driving fears that they could exacerbate the COVID-19 situation.

The Mexican government has no restrictions on southbound travel. Additionally, thousands of border residents hold dual citizenship, so restrictions from either country likely would not impact them anyway unless they start restricting their own citizens from traveling.

At the start of the pandemic, in March, residents in Nogales, Sonora, temporarily blocked the DeConcini crossing to press for stricter screenings on U.S. travelers.

The Sonora government in Hermosillo sent health workers to screen passengers later that week. However, they remained in place only for a short period. Since then, the state deployed workers one other time, during the Labor Day holiday. Nogales installed sanitary filters at crossings, but that also was temporary.

COVID-19 ravaged Nogales, Sonora, early on and continues to be a problem.

Hospitals quickly were overwhelmed and had to turn away sick patients.

The same thing happened at the border city of San Luis Rio Colorado, across the border from the Yuma area, which became one of Sonora’s first coronavirus hot spots.

The state government a few months ago sent medical staff reinforcements. Yet the two cities remain active hot spots, according to official government figures. Because of costs and access to testing, the real number of cases is believed to be much higher.

On Monday, the municipal government in Nogales called on its residents to do more to prevent new infections, as hospital beds in the city quickly filled amid a new surge in cases in Sonora, which already has one of the highest infection rates and confirmed case counts in Mexico. 

The situation is not much better north of the border.

Arizona has seen a large spike in cases, more than 7,000 on Thursday. Hospitalizations in the state are breaking records, and beds at ICU units are nearing capacity as the fallout from holiday gatherings continues playing out. 

Two of Arizona’s border counties remain the state’s most active COVID-19 hot spots. Yuma County and Santa Cruz County, where Nogales is located, led the state in both positive test rates and total infections per capita. 

Dr. Cecilia Rosales, an associate dean at the University of Arizona’s medical school in Phoenix and the co-chair of the Arizona-Mexico Commission’s Health Services Committee, said border community responses to the pandemic are challenged by the intricate nature of their relationships with sister cities on the other side of the border.

That includes a significant number of individuals who live on one side of the border and work on the other, often in essential roles, such as agriculture or the maquila industry. 

It was important for Mexico to implement stricter restrictions in the same way the U.S. had done at border crossings to discourage people from traveling south unless it was necessary, Rosales said.

“The Mexican government shouldn’t just make it mandatory, but the people in Mexico are asking for it and protesting,” she said, acknowledging that it likely required a “delicate balance” between public health and the economic impacts in the region.

Virus threatens to disrupt food supply

The majority of businesses along Morley Avenue in downtown Nogales remain closed because of COVID-19, as well as the lack of shoppers from Mexico who are unable to cross because of travel restrictions to keep the virus from spreading.

Holiday gatherings and unrestricted travel at the U.S.-Mexico border have elevated concerns that the uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 potentially could disrupt one of the state’s key industries, the winter produce season, and by extension, the nation’s food supply.

Yuma grows the majority of leafy greens consumed in the U.S. during the winter months. The busy season kicks off around October and extends into the springtime. 

Nogales is the main gateway for the fresh produce imported from Mexico during the winter that supplies supermarkets around the country with items such as tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers.

Both sectors are labor-intensive and require workers to be physically present at farm fields, warehouses, and border crossings, to grow or ship the products destined for consumers in the U.S.

Lance Jungmeyer is the president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, which represents companies involved in the Mexican winter produce season. He said the industry largely was spared last year because the virus started spreading as the season was wrapping up.

This year, they are headed into the busiest time of the year, with cases surging on both sides of the border. COVID-19 infections among the workforce are making it difficult for businesses to remain operational, he said.

If workers in a warehouse become sick with COVID-19, “you can very quickly find yourself in an inoperable position where you got produce coming in every day from the farm, and customers who want it, and you’re worried, ‘Can I actually continue in business?'” Jungmeyer said.

Some of the companies he represents have taken action to minimize risks, including staggering shifts or getting creative with spacing to accommodate distancing guidelines. 

In Yuma, growers are implementing changes to keep farmworkers safe, including the more than 20,000 workers who cross the border each day through the San Luis port of entry to work the fields in the county.

John Boelts is the owner of Desert Premium Farms in Yuma, which has been in operation for 10 years. They plant up to 3,000 acres, mostly winter vegetables during this time of the year, and can have up to 200 contracted farm workers during harvest time. 

He put into place the recommended distancing guidelines and mandated the use of face masks for any worker within 10 feet of someone else. His farm had been one of the last holdouts without a confirmed positive case, Boelts added.

“A lot of our harvest equipment is not designed to allow for five- or ten-foot distancing very easily, so people have been challenged with that and trying to find ways to make it work,” he said.

As the season kicked off, and workers began to cross to work the fields, employers and labor contractors implemented changes that drove up prices and brought down productivity. 

In keeping with social distancing guidelines, some companies installed plexiglass between seats aboard the large white buses that transport farm workers.

Desert Premium and others paid labor contractors to transport workers who were using every other seat. That meant that employers had to use double the number of buses, fuel, and drivers. 

“It remains to be seen whether our winter season of 2020 through 2021 can be profitable,” Boelts said. “We’re obviously targeting and working on that. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to end up absorbing enough costs that it probably won’t be necessarily a profitable year.”

Unlike the produce industry in Nogales, growers in Yuma did take a hit at the start of the pandemic. The first lockdowns resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of fresh produce because restaurants shut down and growers had nowhere to ship their products. 

“There have been farms that have gone out of business, and other agricultural employers that have gone out of business as a result of both being unable to survive the pandemic and the distribution it has wreaked on the industry,” said Jason Resnick with the Western Growers Association, which represents local and regional family-owned farming operations in the Southwest.

Local non-profits such as Campesinos Sin Fronteras have focused on educating farmworkers about the virus. Recently, the group started organizing small events, using social distancing guidelines, to provide safety information and distribute protective equipment like masks and sanitizers as workers begin crossing into the U.S. in the early morning. 

“They know that we care about their health. They know that we’re doing this because we want them to be healthy,” said Emma Torres, the group’s executive director. 

In Nogales, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas has partnered with Arizona State University to hold testing blitzes aimed at drivers, warehouse workers, and other people employed by the fresh produce industry. The first drive-thru blitz will take place after the holidays. 

“It’s open to the community, but we’re really encouraging produce industry workers to basically start the year with a clean slate, if you would, knowing that you either have COVID or don’t and then taking the appropriate steps afterward,” Jungmeyer said.

Source: AZ Central 

The Sonora Post

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