• The Star Staff

Fleeing lockdown, Americans are flocking to Mexico City

By Oscal Lopez

At first, life in lockdown was OK, between working from home, exercising with his roommate and devouring everything on Netflix.

But as the coronavirus pandemic wore endlessly on, Rob George began to find the confinement in his West Hollywood home unbearable.

“There were weeks where I just wouldn’t leave my house, just working all day — my mental health was definitely suffering,” said George, 31, who manages business operations for a technology startup.

So when a Mexican friend said he was traveling to Mexico City in November, George decided to tag along. Now, he’s calling the Mexican capital home — part of an increasing number of foreigners, mainly Americans, who are heading to Mexico, for a short trip or a longer stay to escape restrictions at home.

They are drawn partly by the prospect of bringing a little normalcy to their lives in a place where coronavirus restrictions have been more relaxed than at home, even as cases of COVID-19 shatter records. Some of them are staying, at least for a while, and taking advantage of the six-month tourist visa that Americans are granted on arrival.

“I have no interest in going back,” George said.

But while coming to this country may be a relief for many foreigners, particularly those fleeing colder weather, some Mexicans find the move irresponsible amid a pandemic, especially as the virus overwhelms Mexico City and its hospitals. Others say the problem lies with Mexican authorities, who waited too long to enact strict lockdown measures, making places like Mexico City enticing to outsiders.

“If it was less attractive, fewer people would come,” said Xavier Tello, a Mexico City health policy analyst. “But what we’re creating is a vicious cycle, where we’re receiving more people, who are potentially infectious or infected from elsewhere, and they keep mixing with people that are potentially infectious or infected here in Mexico City.”

In November, more than half a million Americans came to Mexico — of those, almost 50,000 arrived at Mexico City’s airport, according to official figures, less than half the number of U.S. visitors who arrived in November last year but a surge from the 4,000 that came in April, when much of Mexico was shut down. Since then, numbers have ticked up steadily: between June and August, U.S. visitors more than doubled.

Most other U.S. visitors to Mexico flew to beach resorts like Los Cabos and Cancun.

It’s unclear how many are tourists and how many are relocating, at least temporarily. Some may be Mexicans who also have U.S. passports and are visiting family. But walking the streets of Mexico City’s trendier neighborhoods these days, it can sometimes seem like English has become the official language.

“A lot of people are either coming down here and visiting to test it out, or have just full-on relocated,” said Cara Araneta, a former New Yorker who has lived on and off in Mexico City for two years and came back to the capital in June.

The surge, however, comes as Mexico City enters a critical phase of the pandemic; hospitals are so stretched that many sick people are staying home as their relatives struggle to buy them oxygen. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to avoid all travel to Mexico.

The capital’s health care system “is basically overwhelmed,” said Tello, via WhatsApp message. “The worst is yet to come.”

In mid-December, authorities escalated Mexico City’s alert system to the highest level — red — which requires an immediate shutdown of all but essential businesses. But the lockdown came weeks after numbers became critical, even by the government’s own figures, leaving stores thronged with Christmas shoppers and restaurants filled with diners.

Mexico City is hardly the only Mexican destination seeing a surge of foreign visitors, particularly Americans, who — with the pandemic raging in the United States — are barred from traveling to many countries. While some Latin American nations have at times shut their borders completely, Mexico has imposed few restrictions: Mexico was the third-most visited country in 2020, up from seventh last year, according to the Mexican government, citing preliminary statistics from the World Tourism Organization.

Much of this travel has been concentrated in the country’s popular beach resorts, where coronavirus restrictions can be even more relaxed. Los Cabos had nearly 100,000 Americans arrive in November, while Cancun had 236,000 U.S. visitors, only 18% fewer than in 2019. The nearby resort town of Tulum made headlines for hosting an art and music festival in November that saw hundreds of revelers dancing maskless inside underground caves.

Authorities in Mexico City have urged residents to avoid parties and gatherings, and even before the most recent lockdown, the government had limited restaurant capacity and banned restaurant alcohol sales after 7 p.m. Still, the measures were a far cry from those in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, which, in late November, banned outdoor dining entirely and prohibited all public gatherings.

But enjoying packed dining rooms or other activities once considered normal carries 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 had found herself cut off from her Scottish boyfriend. Mexico’s open borders and lengthy tourist visas for Europeans offered them a chance to be together.

Then both she and her partner got sick with COVID-19. They had been taking precautions, Jodoin said, but had dined out several times and taken Ubers before getting sick. The couple self-isolated and have since recovered, but Jodoin’s symptoms have persisted.

Still, most foreigners say life is better in Mexico City than back home. Araneta, the former New Yorker, went to visit her family in San Diego in November but found being in the United States a challenge.

“It felt more isolated,” she said. “A lot of people are much more on their own.”

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