Prodded by U.S., Mexico aims to restart industrial plants

Dr. Jose Antonio Gama calls for the next patient at a medical center dedicated exclusively to the testing and treatment of patients with COVID-19, in Mexico City, Saturday, May 9, 2020. Health authorities concede that the real number of new coronavirus infections in the densely populated capital is many times higher than the official count, and authorities and experts agree that the worst is yet to come. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged Wednesday to begin reopening Mexico’s economy next week — under pressure at home and from U.S. officials — even as the country saw its largest one-day jump in coronavirus cases, hospitals are reeling, and testing remains inadequate.

Economy Secretary Graciela Marquez said the move 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.

A lockdown — which began in March and includes mandatory closures of “non essential” businesses — will remain in place, but work in the industries Marquez cited will be allowed to begin again because Mexico’s top advisory body on the pandemic, the General Health Council, said Tuesday it had decided to classify them as “essential activities.”

Mexico has been under pressure from U.S. officials to reopen auto assembly plants, in particular, because without them, integrated supply chains would make it hard for plants in the U.S. and Canada to reopen. At home, the National Alliance of Small Business Owners has also complained about lockdown measures, often imposed, quasi-legally, at the local level.

But others in Mexico fear a reopening — saying the measures were too long in coming and haven’t been in place for long enough. The announcement came as hospitals from Mexico City to its northern border with the U.S. were nearing overload, and many manufacturing workers in border cities like Ciudad Juarez had only recently been sent home in the wake of protests demanding a shutdown.

Mexican health officials on Tuesday reported the country’s 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 acknowledged the actual number of infections is many times that. Mexico has done relatively little testing, with about 120,000 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 reopening will risk an upsurge in cases — and to see one coming if it does. Marquez, the economy secretary, said that schools and businesses would be allowed to reopen in 269 townships that have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 — or in about one-tenth of Mexico’s 2,465 townships. They are largely located in rural areas in north-central and southeastern Mexico.

Dr. Miguel Betancourt, president of the Mexican Society of Public Health, cautioned against putting too much stock in the safety of opening places with no recorded cases, given the low level of testing.

“Without a well-implemented system of monitoring or an adequate laboratory testing capacity in these areas, they don’t really know precisely what the situation is,” he said. “Just because there aren’t any cases right now, doesn’t mean there won’t be later.”

Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell said Wednesday the Mexican government is evaluating more widespread testing, but that it probably wouldn’t start until July.

The auto and other manufacturing plants that the U.S. wants reopened — and that the Mexican government is now pushing to restart — often depend on parts made at factories along the border known as maquiladoras. Ciudad Juarez is home to hundreds such plants.

While many shut when the lockdown began, others were considered essential and still others tried to eke out a few more weeks of production. But as the virus spread like wildfire through factory floors, workers staged walkouts and protests to demand to be sent them home with full pay. There have been reports from workers, companies and labor activists of dozens of deaths among employees in such plants.

Susana Prieto, a labor lawyer who advises workers at maquiladoras, said the decision showed the government was yielding to pressure from multinationals.

“Is it safe?” Prieto asked with disbelief. “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.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and can lead to death.

U.S. officials have suggested the supply chain of the North American free trade zone could be permanently affected if Mexican factories 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.”

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 Cancún — 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.

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 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 a date for reopening its plant, also in Guanajuato, but some workers there reported getting notices to report for work on May 18. Ford said it was waiting for government approval to reopen.

Officials also said other businesses and schools would begin to reopen. López Obrador said it would be left largely up to individual states to decide how to proceed.

The government of Mexico City, which has been hardest hit by the virus, 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 reopen sometime in August.