Intense coronavirus outbreak ravages Mexico

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers wearing powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) hoods process COVID-19 test samples at a drive-thru testing site operated by Avera Health inside the former Silverstar Car Wash, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S., October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan/File Photo: REUTERS

Mexico continues to grapple with an intensifying coronavirus outbreak — and an economic beating. The country reopened its economy in June without controlling its first COVID-19 wave, and the consequences have become a cautionary tale about pitting the economy against public health.

Tourism is the top industry in the southern state of Oaxaca. Visitors from Mexico and worldwide flock to the Pacific Coast beaches and the state’s colonial capital and archaeological zones. Navigating economic survival while trying to minimize harm to public health is a fine line many in the battered tourism sector are having to walk.

With no international air restrictions, foreign travelers have recently taken advantage of enticing discounts. But COVID-19 is still killing tourism. 

Normally, Oaxaca City’s central plaza would be full of tourists. But not now. Street vendors trying to eke out a living outnumber potential customers. 

“Those of us who work in tourism were the first to be affected,” says travel agent Emmanuel Castellanos. He says many small businesses like his have had to shut down while bigger franchise operations survive. He’s been able to keep his office open thanks to loyal local clients and a sympathetic landlord. Vendors in front of Oaxaca's landmark cathedral have been outnumbering potential clients these days.

Vendors in front of Oaxaca’s landmark cathedral have been outnumbering potential clients these days. Credit:

Shannon Young/The World Government health officials have called on citizens to voluntarily stay home while tourism destinations are still open and offering enticing discounts. Nonessential travel is ill-advised, but not illegal. 

Castellanos says many of his agency’s local clients are restless and anxious to travel. “We have to tell clients that it’s not advisable to travel right now,” he says. “But we also can’t prohibit them from doing so.” Instead, he warns them of the risks and urges them to act accordingly.

Related: Shuttered cemeteries mean financial ruin for Mexico’s flower farmers

In Mexico, international tourism usually brings an upward of $20 billion a year. But 2020 might deliver less than half that amount. And this is despite Mexico keeping international air travel open, including US tourists barred from other countries due to soaring COVID-19 cases. 

Unlike other travel destinations, travelers flying into Mexico do not have to prove they are virus-free to enter the country for non-essential travel. 

Keith Whyte, an Irish tech consultant who flew into Mexico City from Europe recently, says he breezed through customs without having to present health documentation. Whyte filled out an electronic form that asks travelers to self-report COVID-19-like symptoms or recent contact with confirmed cases. And he came prepared with a QR code generated from the electronic form on his phone, but he says authorities never asked for it. 

Still, Whyte says he’s careful to travel responsibly by minimizing contacts before travel, staying in one place and wearing a mask in public. But that’s not always the case with other foreign visitors — notably among the younger crowd. This can put hospitality workers at risk of infection.