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Mexico To Begin 'Healthy Distancing' Amid Criticism It Has Done Too Little Too Late

Mexico's health officials say it's time to keep your distance. Beginning Monday, people will be urged to maintain safe distances from one another and, if possible, work from home. Public schools, which were open through Friday, will remain closed until at least April 20.

As of Saturday night, Mexico's Secretary of Health reported 251 confirmed cases and two deaths from the coronavirus disease COVID-19. Some state and cities have already imposed stricter measures. On Sunday, Mexico City's mayor announced that bars, theaters and museums would be closed, also beginning Monday.

Local officials, political opponents and newspaper columnists have criticized President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for not taking tougher measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Multiple Central American countries have closed their borders and stopped air traffic from overseas. But Mexico is still allowing flights from the United States and Europe. On Friday, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to allow only "essential traffic" across their shared land border. Cross-border commerce will continue and workers will be able to get to their jobs.

The government released a cartoon character Saturday named "Susana Distancia." The costumed superhero stretches out her arms to show the distance one should keep from others. But until now, "social distancing" guidelines have been merely suggestions and President López Obrador has continued to hug, shake hands and take selfies with supporters at government events. At a press conference last week, he seemed to make light of the coronavirus threat, digging religious amulets out of his pocket that he called "protective shields."

But in a nod to the growing criticism of his relaxed approach, the events López Obrador held this weekend in the southern state of Oaxaca were smaller.

His tone, however, was criticized for failing to convey urgency. "We have to continue working in spite of the threat of coronavirus," he said as he oversaw progress of construction of a new highway in Oaxaca on Saturday. "I believe we would be wrong to panic, if we just stopped and we did nothing," he said.

Sunday, López Obrador barely mentioned the health crisis as he spoke at another highway construction project. As he has in the past, the president emphasized the heavy burden mass closures would place on Mexico's poor. But he assured the crowd Mexico could weather the crisis, pointing to its $10 billion cash reserve. Although the Mexican peso has fallen sharply in recent days, now trading at 24 to the U.S. dollar, López Obrador urged his country's central bank not to use its reserves to shore up the currency.

López Obrador struck an optimistic note: "If we continue working with honesty, austerity and efficiency, we will be able to confront the crisis and move ahead," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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