Mexico president begins ‘new normal’ amid pandemic

As the country begins easing restrictions, Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes first road trip in months.

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REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP file photo

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on April 3 waves to supporters after visiting a Mexican Social Security Institute hospital that will be converted to receive COVID-19 patients in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City.

By DAN CHRISTIAN ROJAS and MARIA VERZA, Associated Press

CANCUN, Mexico — Amid a pandemic and the remnants of a tropical storm, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador kicked off Mexico’s return to a “new normal” Monday.

He took his first road trip in two months as the nation began to gradually ease some virus-induced restrictions.

López Obrador said he’s taking all necessary precautions — he drove the 1,000 miles from Mexico City over the weekend rather than flying — on a trip to promote construction of one of his signature infrastructure projects, the Mayan Train, designed to whisk tourists from resort destinations like Cancun into the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. It has been criticized as an environmental threat and faces opposition from indigenous communities, but he says it will create 80,000 jobs.

While the federal government’s nationwide social distancing rule formally ended Monday, it is urging people in so-called “red” zones to maintain most of those measures — and so many people are falling ill and dying each day that those zones cover nearly the whole country.

Mexico is nearing 100,000 confirmed infections and nearly 10,000 deaths, both considered to be undercounts.

Mexican officials said last week more than 5,000 companies had implemented protocols that would allow them to reopen this week. The federal government had cleared businesses in the mining, construction and auto-manufacturing sectors to resume operations.

While in Cancun, the president was also discussing what local officials hope is the quick return of tourists. Mexico’s most popular beach destination officially plans to reopen next week — albeit with social distancing restrictions such as a ban on buffets. Gov. Carlos Manuel Joaquín Gonzalez of the state of Quintana Roo, said reservations already are being received by Cancun hotels, but if there’s a new surge in infections, they’ll suspend the reopening.

We’re going to carefully return to productive activities.”

— Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

But nothing appear normal yet around Cancun. The beaches have been mostly empty, and bars and restaurants remained closed. Cancun residents are wearing masks and traffic has light. The dramatic drop of international air travel and April 1 closure of Cancun’s beaches left thousands unemployed.

Some Cancun residents remain worried about the health dangers an early reopening could bring, while others are more concerned with facing unemployment.

In Mexico City, traffic has increased significantly in the past week. More people are out in the streets, though in some neighborhoods foot traffic has remained steady.. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum urged residents via Twitter on Monday to stay at home if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to go out.

Even when the federal government gave more than 300 remote “towns of hope” — places that didn’t have active infections — permission to reopen May 18, most declined.

On Monday, López Obrador highlighted a couple of hot spots, including the Pacific Coast beach destination Acapulco and his home state of Tabasco.

“We’re going to carefully return to productive activities,” he said.

Mexico’s Social Security Institute said in April the country lost 550,000 jobs during the epidemic and López Obrador recently said another 400,000 were lost in May. Mexico’s central bank projected last week that the economy would shrink as much as 8.8% this year.

The president has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic. He continued to travel the country a month after Mexico’s first confirmed case and has continually mixed messages of a need to take precautions with the country’s need to reactivate its economy.

On his way to Cancun, López Obrador stopped at his ranch in Chiapas state and recorded a video he shared on social networks. He tried to highlight positive economic signs, noting the peso has regained a bit of value against the dollar and the price of oil has risen slightly.

“I wanted to give you good news,” López Obrador said. “There is economic recovery. The model we are using is showing us results.”
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Verza reported from Mexico City.

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