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Mexico president kicks off 'new normal' phase amid pandemic

CANCUN, Mexico (AP) — Amid a pandemic and the remnants of a tropical storm, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador kicked off Mexico’s return to a “new normal” Monday with his first road trip in two months as the nation began to gradually ease some virus-inspired restrictions.

López Obrador said he’s taking all necessary precautions — he drove the 1,000 miles from Mexico City over the weekend rather than flying — on a trip to promote construction of one of his signature infrastructure projects the Mayan Train.

While the federal government’s nationwide social distancing rule formally ended Monday, it is urging people in so-called “red” zones to maintain most of those measures — and so many people are falling ill and dying each day that those zones cover nearly the whole country.

Mexico is nearing 100,000 confirmed infections and nearly 10,000 deaths, both considered to be undercounts.

Mexican officials said last week that more than 5,000 companies had implemented protocols that would allow them to reopen this week. The federal governmnet had cleared businesses in the mining, construction and auto manufacturing sectors to resume operations.

While in Cancun, the president was also talking up what local officials hope is the quick return of tourists. Mexico’s most popular beach destination officially plans to reopen next week — albeit with social distancing restrictions such as a ban on buffets. Quintana Roo Gov. Carlos Manuel Joaquín Gonzalez said they’ve already started receiving reservations, but if there's a new surge in infections, they'll suspend the reopening.

But around Cancun, nothing appeared normal yet. The beaches were empty, bars and restaurants remained closed. Locals walked around wearing masks and traffic was light. The dramatic drop of international air travel and April 1 closure of Cancun’s beaches left thousands unemployed.

Cancun resident Andres Jose Conrado said maybe his city could reopen in a few months, but it was more important to continue with the health precautions.

“I say it’s very early (to reopen),” Conrado said, a cloth mask over his nose and mouth. “For now I say it’s not necessary.”

But Sergio Ortega Jara, another resident who is out of work, said they need to get jobs back. He conceded that the virus was a real danger, but insisted people need income. “It’s kind of bad, there’s no work,” Ortega said.

In Mexico City, traffic has increased significantly in the past week. More people are out in the streets, though in some neighborhoods that foot traffic had hardly ever diminished. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum urged residents via Twitter on Monday to stay at home if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to go out.

Even when the federal government gave more than 300 remote “towns of hope” — places that didn’t have active infections — permission to reopen May 18, most declined.

On Monday, López Obrador highlighted a couple of hot spots, including the Pacific Coast beach destination Acapulco and his home state of Tabasco.

“We’re going to carefully return to productive activities,” he said.

López Obrador planned to spend the week promoting the start of construction for the Mayan Train, which will whisk tourists from resort destinations like Cancun into the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. It has been criticized as an environmental threat and faces opposition from indigenous communities, but he says it will create 80,000 jobs.

The president has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic. He continued to travel the country a month after Mexico’s first confirmed case and has continually mixed messages of a need to take precautions with the country’s need to reactivate its economy.

Mexico’s Social Security Institute said in April that the country had lost 550,000 jobs during the epidemic and López Obrador recently said another 400,000 were lost in May. Mexico’s central bank projected last week that the economy would shrink as much as 8.8% this year.

On his way to Cancun, López Obrador stopped at his ranch in Chiapas state and recorded a video he shared on social networks. He tried to highlight positive economic signs, noting the peso has regained a bit of value against the dollar and the price of oil has risen slightly.

“I wanted to give you good news,” López Obrador said. “There is economic recovery. The model we are using is showing us results.”

The remnants of Tropical Storm Amanda which left at least a dozen dead over the weekend in Central America were expected to dump rain on the Yucatan Peninsula and forecasters said it might reform within days over the southern Gulf of Mexico.

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Verza reported from Mexico City.

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