Flu-Frightened Capital Attempts to Return to Normal

By Tracy Wilkinson
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- Smells of soap and bleach mixed with the aroma of grilled meat and fried tortillas as Mexicans on Wednesday scrubbed down sidewalks, opened up restaurants and tried to shake off days of flu-induced solitude. But the country's much anticipated "return to normal" was more of a stumble than a leap.

Merchants complained that the rules they must abide by in reopening their stores, restaurants and theaters are so onerous that they might as well stay closed. A person sitting in a theater, for example, is supposed to keep two seats vacant on either side -- as well as a row in front of and behind him.

"There will be more people on the stage than in the audience," said theater producer Tina Galindo.

And even as businesses and offices opened their doors, street vendors went back on duty and traffic picked up considerably in this sprawling city of 20 million people, the nationwide death toll from the H1N1 flu virus rose dramatically. That in turn made many parents wonder whether it was really safe to let their children return to school, a process that is supposed to begin Thursday. Compounding their concerns: Officials said 40 percent of the state's schools do not have sanitary bathrooms.

"The fact that we are renewing activities is to try to return gradually to normal, but obviously we cannot yet return to normal," Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.

Mexican authorities say the flu outbreak has cost the country, already mired in recession, billions of dollars, especially in the hard-hit tourism industry and among small businesses.

The rules for reopening could result in further economic woes, businessmen said.

By limiting seating in theaters, a venue with capacity for 960 spectators would be able to seat only 160. "It's absurd," said Sylvia Pinal, the veteran actress from Mexico's golden age of cinema.

Restaurants, which opened Wednesday after eight days, are required to position diners six feet apart and screen them when they enter, surveying their health and offering them anti-bacterial gel for their hands.

"We are here and ready. I just hope the customers come," cashier Adelfina Villalobos said from behind her medical face mask at El Farolito, a chain restaurant offering low-cost tacos. Employees had removed chairs from every other table to comply with the distance-between-diners regulation.

Ignacio Margulis, who runs an Argentine steakhouse, was removing and rearranging his tables, with yellow cloths and wine glasses, to allow for the required space. It will cut the number of customers he can serve by about half.

"Beginnings are hard, but we'll get through it," he said. "A few customers will come today, tomorrow a few more. Little by little."

Fancier eateries apparently decided it wasn't worth it, and several along Mexico City's fashionable Avenida Presidente Masirik remained closed.

Meanwhile, Mexicans got another reminder of what global pariahs they have become when a chartered AeroMexico jet returned here early Wednesday with 138 Mexican tourists ordered back from China. Some had been rounded up by Chinese authorities and quarantined even though they weren't sick, an action that outraged Mexican officials.

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To compensate for the humiliation, the Mexican government gave the returning tourists something of a hero's welcome, dispatching the first lady, Margarita Zavala, to receive them before dawn at the presidential hangar of the Mexico City airport.

Emerging from a flight of nearly two days, they told stories of being yanked from their planes upon arrival in China; poked, probed and tested, and being denied access to hotels, just because they held Mexican passports.

"It was like we were criminals," passenger Rosa Martha Garcia said.

Chinese officials have said they were merely taking health precautions in a country devastated by the SARS epidemic in 2003 and were not motivated by xenophobia.

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China was one of several countries that halted flights to and from Mexico and attempted to isolate Mexican visitors. Even Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, turned away a Mexican ship carrying 77 tons of desperately needed food and other aid, according to Mexican officials. The shipment was part of $324 million in pledges made at an international donors conference held last month at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.

Having assured the public that the epidemic was declining in its infectious spread, Cordova, the health secretary, on Wednesday announced the death toll in Mexico had jumped to 42 from 29 the day before. He said the higher figure did not represent a new wave of infection but that a faster rate of testing was confirming cases more quickly. Five people died in the last six days, he said.

Another 1,070 people in Mexico are confirmed to have been infected with the virus, the majority of them already recovered, Cordova said. The government said it cannot run tests on another 77 suspicious deaths.

The reality, said Mexican epidemiologist Dr. Alejandro Macias, "is we are not returning to normal. The virus is here to stay. It's here for months, probably years."

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