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 today.
“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.
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.
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.