Tijuana, hit hard by coronavirus, is starting to reopen

TIJUANA, Mexico - Just weeks ago, Tijuana had the highest number of documented coronavirus cases in all of Mexico. Now reported new cases have slowed to a trickle and the city is preparing to officially reopen, sending tens of thousands of employees back to work in nonessential service, manufacturing, construction and commercial jobs.


Baja California leaders hope it will be the first gradual step on the path to economic recovery after the coronavirus killed 1,586 people statewide as of Friday, and officials tried to lock down the industrial border city of 1.8 million.


"We were one of the states hit earliest, and that is why we are going to be one of the states to emerge the fastest from the pandemic in Mexican territory," said Baja California health secretary Alonso Perez Rico.


He cautioned that the public health crisis is far from over, with 499 active cases across the state. But leaders now face a new challenge. In Mexico, "COVID-19 will quickly convert into an economic pandemic," wrote a group of researchers from the local El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) university.


Dr. Redi Gomis, one of the team's researchers and a professor of social studies at COLEF, said unlike past economic crises that trickled down after impacting the maquiladora industry and large production businesses, the current crisis has directly disabled the service industry, big and small.


Hardest hit were the city's poorest, such as people selling homemade tamales from makeshift street stands or vendors in the city's crowded roving street markets called "sobreruedas." For that reason, residents on the eastern edge of the city said the daily grind barely ever slowed.


"We're all families here, so of course all of us continued working. We just implemented measures _ everyone has to have a mask and only one family member inside at a time. But no businesses in this area ever stopped working," said mechanic Roberto Martinez about the Mariano Matamoros neighborhood.


The neighborhood, one of Tijuana's poorest, also had the biggest increase in the number of people who died in their homes without ever accessing medical care or getting tested for the virus, according to University of California, Los Angeles researchers.


As of Friday, the city remained on "red light" - the highest level of alert - but the health secretary said Tijuana will step down to orange soon, meaning some nonessential businesses can reopen. At "orange light," museums, malls and churches can open at 25 percent capacity.


"We're not going to stay in red much longer," said Perez Rico.


Last week, about 200 restaurants in Tijuana were permitted to open at 30 percent capacity. A spokesman for Canirac, a national restaurant association, said the businesses collectively served about 16,000 guests, with sit-down dining generating nearly 12 million pesos or the equivalent of $527,256.


When the city reaches the "orange" level, gyms and salons can allow customers by appointment only, but they can serve only half of their normal business. Bars and nightclubs aren't supposed to reopen until the city reaches a lower, "yellow light" warning level.


Gomis said new safety measures, in which businesses are supposed to provide hand gel and check employees for coronavirus symptoms, along with the practical impossibility of social distancing on public transportation or in very small shops, are reasons why some small businesses may never recover.


For residents who were already scrambling to survive, "the new normal looks like a pretty hellish future," he said.


The same factors help explain why businesses are eagerly reopening faster than allowed.


"Now Hiring" signs hang outside downtown city nightclubs. Security guards in black uniforms met Wednesday afternoon under the beating sun outside of Las Pulgas - the city's most popular downtown club. It is not yet opened, they said, but management was inside recording promotional videos in anticipation of it.


Unlike in San Diego, officials in Baja California haven't yet described what specific factors would trigger stepping down a risk level, leaving some residents and businesses deciding for themselves.


"This whole time people have been sending me messages on WhatsApp and Facebook and even when I go to the grocery store ... the first thing people ask us is when we are going to open," said Alberto Ramirez, a DJ at Las Pulgas. "We hope it is going to be very soon."


About a month ago, Tijuana had more deaths attributed to COVID-19 than any other city in Mexico and a mortality rate that was twice the national average. State health officials documented only five new coronavirus cases in Tijuana during a 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday - a sign, they say, that the city is finally emerging from the pandemic.


The picture is not the same across Baja California.


"Tijuana is emerging from the epidemic curve. Mexicali is at the apex, Ensenada and San Quintin are still on their plateau," said Perez Rico. He warned Tijuana residents about the possibility of a second wave of cases.


"Now is not the time to go out," he cautioned.


Nonetheless, foot traffic along the famous Avenida Revolucion is slowly returning, with small crowds in masks gathered at each corner waiting for the pedestrian-crossing sign to flash. In the abandoned Playas de Tijuana, restaurant servers last week were cleaning beach-facing windows and washing off boardwalks in anticipation of weekend business.


"Actually, for us, the majority of our clients are locals, not tourists like many other places here," said Gonzalo Hoyas, owner of La Casa de Don Juan Tijuana, a restaurant popular in Las Playas for its giant breakfasts and outdoor patio.


Hoyas said he had a "soft reopening" on Tuesday, not yet reaching the allowed 30% capacity. But, he said he's confident his business will fully recover.


"I'm just glad I was able to bring back all my staff. We have the same employees as always. The ones we've had since we opened seven years ago," said Hoyas, adding that his customers were happy to reconnect with them.


The reopening already hit some snags, though.


Even though bars and clubs are not allowed to reopen until Tijuana steps down to a lower risk level, many did anyway. On Thursday the City Council suspended 50 service-industry businesses, including 20 bars and nightclubs, for opening without permission and for not following the sanitary protocols when they did open.