Mexico to start reopening border region, other areas as coronavirus lockdown eases

“We’ve begun a new stage. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference on Wednesday. But he cautioned that Mexico was headed for a “new normality” that would require safety measures to prevent major outbreaks of disease.

Under the plan, the government would allow 269 municipalities scattered over 15 states to resume most activities on Monday. These are places that have had no confirmed coronavirus cases and whose neighboring counties also have no sign of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. They represent just over 10 percent of all municipalities in Mexico.

Other municipalities and states will be assigned a color each week, starting June 1, that indicates the extent to which businesses, schools and public gathering places can function. In addition, three major industries will be included on the list of “essential” sectors that can resume operations nationwide next week — construction, mining and auto manufacturing.

Mexico has had significant outbreaks in five cities, including Mexico City, the epicenter. As of Tuesday, the government had logged nearly 4,000 confirmed deaths from covid-19. Authorities have said the actual number is certainly higher.

The restrictions in Mexico have been less severe than in many other Latin American countries, relying on persuasion rather than police to keep people home. Schools and most businesses and government offices have had to close, however. Authorities say the restrictions have prevented a nationwide spike in cases, although the virus continues to spread.

Some governors expressed concern that Mexico was reopening too early. “Everything is going to collapse, all the measures we have taken to keep people at home,” said Gov. Miguel Barbosa of Puebla, which is home to major Volkswagen and Audi plants.

Officials indicated that Mexico City will remain “red” — the highest level of lockdown. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said restaurants, department stores and cinemas would reopen in mid-June, at one-third capacity.

Three big states on the U.S. border, in contrast, are considered “green” — Chihuahua, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon. If they remain in that category, they will be able to resume manufacturing and other business activities in June, and schools in those states will reopen.

The Trump administration has been urging Mexico to restart assembly plants that provide inputs for critical U.S. industries such as defense contractors. López Obrador, too, has been eager for a resumption of economic activity. Some Mexican officials have been wary, however, because dozens of workers have become sick at border factories that remained open. Several have died.

Baja California is considered “red” because of a coronavirus outbreak in the city of Tijuana, south of San Diego.

The two other border states — Sonora and Tamaulipas — are “yellow,” meaning that businesses can reopen but schools will remain closed and restrictions on gathering places, including churches and parks, will continue.

Many of Mexico’s popular beach destinations — Acapulco, Cancun, Playa del Carmen — are in “red” states, meaning hotels and restaurants will probably not reopen for weeks. Tourism accounts for about 8 percent of the Mexican economy.

While authorities issued a detailed plan on easing lockdowns, López Obrador said states would not be punished if they decided to establish their own rules.

And officials cautioned that shutdowns could be reintroduced in states or municipalities if cases flare up again. They estimate that Mexico City and Cancun recently passed their peaks of new cases.

Hugo López-Gatell, the Health Ministry official who has designed Mexico’s strategy, acknowledged that much was still unknown about the path of the virus.

“In every moment, there is uncertainty,” he said. “Every country in the world faces the question of whether you can head into the new normality, and at what speed.”

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