Fleeing lockdown, Individuals are flock to Mexico Metropolis – the place the coronavirus is surging
MEXICO CITY – At first, life was fine in Lockdown, between working from home, exercising with his roommate, and devouring everything on Netflix.
But when the coronavirus pandemic went on forever, Rob George found imprisonment at his West Hollywood home unbearable.
“There were weeks when I just didn’t want to leave my house and just worked all day – my mental health definitely suffered,” said 31-year-old George, who runs the business for a technology start-up.
When a Mexican friend said he went to Mexico City in November, Mr. George decided to participate. Now he’s calling home in the Mexican capital – part of an increasing number of foreigners, mostly Americans, who travel to Mexico for a short trip or an extended stay to escape the restrictions at home.
They are partially drawn to the prospect of bringing a bit of normalcy to their lives in a place where coronavirus restrictions have been eased than at home, even as cases of Covid-19 records rock. Some of them stay for at least a while, using the six-month tourist visa that Americans are granted upon arrival.
“I have no interest in going back,” said Mr. George.
But while coming to this country can be a relief for many foreigners, especially those fleeing colder weather, some Mexicans find moving irresponsible amid a pandemic, especially as the virus overwhelms Mexico City and its hospitals. Others say the problem lies with the Mexican authorities, who waited too long to put in place strict lockdown measures and made places like Mexico City alluring to outsiders.
“If it were less attractive, fewer people would come,” said Xavier Tello, a health policy analyst in Mexico City. “But we are creating a vicious circle in which we receive more people who are potentially infectious or infected from elsewhere and who are constantly mixing with people who are potentially infectious or infected here in Mexico City.”
More than half a million Americans came to Mexico in November – of whom, according to official figures, nearly 50,000 arrived at the Mexico City airport, less than half of the US visitors who arrived in November last year, but a rise in poverty of 4,000 that came in April when much of Mexico was closed. Since then, the numbers have risen steadily: between June and August, US visitors more than doubled.
Most of the other US visitors to Mexico flew to beach resorts like Los Cabos and Cancun.
It is unclear how many tourists there are and how many are moving, at least temporarily. Some may be Mexicans who also have American passports and are visiting family. When you walk the streets of Mexico City these days, it can sometimes seem like English has become the official language.
“A lot of people either come here and visit to try it out or have just moved,” said Cara Araneta, a former New Yorker who has lived in Mexico City for two years and is coming back, who came back to the capital in June.
However, the surge comes when Mexico City enters a critical phase of the pandemic; Hospitals are so congested that many sick people stay at home because their relatives have difficulty buying oxygen for them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to avoid traveling to Mexico.
The capital’s health system “is basically overwhelmed,” Tello said via WhatsApp message. “The worst is yet to come.”
In mid-December, authorities escalated Mexico City’s warning system to the highest level – red – requiring the immediate closure of all but essential businesses. But the lockdown came weeks after the numbers became critical, even according to the government, and stores were overflowing with Christmas shoppers and restaurants full of diners.
With its leafy streets and quaint cafes, the upscale Roma and Condesa neighborhoods in Mexico City have been drawing expatriates who have escaped sky-high rents in New York or Los Angeles for years. But with an increasing number of young people now working from home, the so-called Axis of Coolness has become even more appealing, even as Mexico City residents face a public health crisis.
As in much of the world, the wealthiest are often least affected. In Roma Norte, the contrast was vivid: recently, working-class Mexicans lined up on a corner to buy oxygen tanks for their relatives, while affluent young people lined up for croissants were just blocks away.
Jan. 3, 2021, 1:42 AM ET
Mexico City is hardly the only Mexican travel destination where foreign visitors can be found, especially Americans who are not allowed to travel to many countries due to the pandemic in the United States. While some Latin American states have temporarily closed their borders completely, Mexico has imposed few restrictions: Mexico was the third most frequent country in 2020, up from the seventh last year, according to the Mexican government, citing preliminary statistics from the World Tourism Organization.
Much of these trips have focused on the country’s popular beach resorts, where coronavirus restrictions can still be relaxed. Nearly 100,000 Americans arrived in Los Cabos in November and 236,000 US visitors in Cancun, only 18 percent fewer than in 2019. The nearby resort of Tulum made headlines when it hosted an arts and music festival in November that attracted hundreds of Night owls danced maskless underground caves.
Mexico City authorities have urged residents to avoid parties and gatherings, and even before the last lockdown, the government had limited the restaurant’s capacity and banned the sale of restaurant alcohol after 7 p.m. Still, the measures were a far cry from those in American cities like Los Angeles, which completely banned outdoor dining and banned all public gatherings in late November.
“Despite the limitations here, just being outside and working in a socially distant coffee shop and feeling like you’re not on break helped a lot,” said George, the former Angeleno.
Like most foreigners coming to Mexico, Mr George said he was aware of the risks of travel during the pandemic and was taking precautions such as wearing a mask. The opportunity to have some freedom coupled with the excitement of living in a new country makes the risk to their health worthwhile for many.
“I know people who have lived in fear for the past year, who have not left their homes, who have lost their jobs,” said Alexander Vignogna, 33, who visited Mexico City in October and plans to move here full-time, said his partner in January. “But instead of doing something adventurous and cool like me and my girlfriend, they just stayed home depressed.”
Such laissez-faire attitudes by outsiders have angered many residents, both Mexicans and foreigners.
“Tourists (mostly from the US, apparently) have flooded into Mexico to avoid restrictions in their home states,” said Lauren Cocking, 26, a British blogger who has lived in Mexico for about five years, in an email.
They “seem to treat Mexico like some kind of lawless adventure land where they can escape the need to wear masks or stay inside.”
Others say the influx of foreigners is a welcome boost to Mexico City’s troubled economy.
“What Mexico needs most is people to help its economy improve,” said William Velázquez Yañez, 25, who worked as a valet attendant at an upscale Roma Norte restaurant before the final ban was introduced.
He lost his job at the start of the pandemic, and although he was eventually recalled, his salary was cut and his health insurance taken away. If more people are eating out, his boss might start paying him more, said Mr Velázquez.
However, enjoying overcrowded dining rooms or other activities that were once considered normal comes with its own risks.
Nicole Jodoin moved to Mexico City from Canada after securing a job here in July. Part of her impetus was that with Canadian borders closed, she felt cut off from her Scottish boyfriend. Mexico’s open borders and long tourist visas for Europeans gave them the opportunity to be together.
Then both she and her partner got sick with Covid-19. They took precautions, Ms. Jodoin said, but ate and taken Ubers several times before they got sick. The couple have self-isolated and have since recovered, but Ms. Jodoin’s symptoms have continued.
Still, most foreigners say that life in Mexico City is better than at home. Ms. Araneta, the former New Yorker, visited her family in San Diego in November but found being in the United States challenging.
“It felt more isolated,” she said. “Many people are much more alone.”