President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged Wednesday to begin reopening Mexico’s economy next week — encouraged by U.S. officials — even as hospitals from Mexico City to the border reeled under the pressure of the largest one-day jump in COVID-19 case numbers and the lack of testing made decision-making difficult.
Economy Secretary Graciela Marquez said the reopening would be “gradual, orderly and cautious,” and that by May 18, industries like construction, mining, and car and truck manufacturing would be allowed to resume.
Mexico’s top advisory body on the coronavirus pandemic, the General Health Council, said Tuesday it had decided to classify those industries as “essential activities” that are allowed to continue working during a lockdown aimed at fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Mexico has been under pressure from U.S. officials to reopen auto plants because without them, integrated supply chains would make it hard for plants in the U.S. and Canada to reopen.
The announcement came as hospitals from Mexico City to its northern border with the U.S. were nearing overload, and manufacturing workers in border cities like Ciudad Juarez had only recently been sent home following protests prompted by the wildfire spready of the coronavirus through their plants.
Mexican health officials on Tuesday reported its largest single-day jump in COVID-19 case numbers, with 1,997 new cases and 353 deaths, bringing the total to has over 38,000 confirmed cases and almost 4,000 deaths.
Officials have acknowleged the actual infection numbers are many times that number. Mexico has done relatively little testing, with about 120,000 coronavirus tests reported so far in a country of almost 130 million. That is equivalent to only about 0.6 people per 1,000 inhabitants tested, the lowest rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
That will make it hard to judge whether the re-opening will risk a renewed upsurge in cases.
Susana Prieto, a labor lawyer who advises workers at border assembly plants known as maquiladoras, said the decision showed the government was yielding to pressure from multinationals. Workers in Ciudad Juarez have staged walkouts and protests to get firms to shut down and send them home with full pay during the lockdown.
Now, even though there have reportedly been dozens of deaths among maquiladora workers, the government wants to put some plants that produce car seats or wiring harnesses back to work.
“Is it safe?” Prieto asked ironically. “It is safe to say that the president of Mexico is a puppet of Mexican and foreign (businesses) that do not care about the lives of Mexican workers?”
U.S. officials have urged Mexico to open plants, suggesting the supply chain of the North American free trade zone could be permanently affected if they didn’t resume production.
Christopher Landau, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, launched a Twitter campaign last month, writing “There are risks everywhere, but we don’t all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident … The destruction of the economy is also a health threat.”
Ellen Lord, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, recently said that Mexican plant closures were affecting U.S. companies.
But the pressure for reopening is building as well in Mexican states where the lockdown has caused huge job losses.
Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, the governor of the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo — home to resorts like Cancun — said his state has lost 22% of its jobs after about 8 million people cancelled trips to the area this year due to pandemic.
“Obviously, this requires us to think about reopening — as soon as possible,” Joaquin Gonzalez said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Nationwide, Mexico has lost about 500,000 jobs due to the pandemic, and the auto industry appears eager to get back to work.
Volkswagen de Mexico said last week it is planning to reopen its assembly plant in Puebla state and its engine factory in Guanajuato state on June 1.
General Motors said it hadn’t fixed “an exact date” for reopening its plant, also in the Guanajuato city of Silao, but some workers there reported getting notices to report for work on May 18. Ford said, “We are waiting to receive (government) approval to operate.”
Officials also said other businesses and schools would begin to reopen. Marquez said that schools and businesses would be allowed to reopen in about one-tenth of Mexico’s townships that have no recorded cases of coronavirus. There are about 269 such “townships of hope,” that neither have active cases in their own territory nor in adjoining townships. They are largely located in rural areas in north-central and southeastern Mexico.
A new, four-color coding system will be in place by June 1 to tell people and businesses what activities are allowed. But López Obrador said it would be left up to individual states to act as they say best. “We are not going to fight,” the president said.
The government of Mexico City, which has been hardest hit by the virus and where most of the hospitals are full, announced that manufacturing and construction can restart on June 1. Restaurants and department stores can open at one-third capacity starting June 15, and sports events can be played without spectators. Schools will re-open sometime in August.