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COVID-19 Cases Spike In Mexico

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The debate about when it's safe to reopen is playing out across the world. This past week, Mexico saw its highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths. Hospitals and morgues are working to capacity. Still, the government is moving forward with plans to reopen key industries tomorrow. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Outside Mexico City's large general hospital, vendors hawk small plastic bottles of antibacterial gel...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: ...And face masks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Anxious families line up at the entrance every day at noon to get information about their relatives. No visitors are allowed inside.

DONOVAN NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Donovan Nunez says he rushed his father here in the middle of the night. When we speak, his mom is getting an update.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Struggling to hold back tears, Nunez says hearing about all the people dying from this virus gets the best of you. Just then, his mom returns in tears. He grabs her tight. His father is being moved into the intensive care unit. He's struggling to breathe. Doctors are testing to confirm COVID.

Cases in Mexico are surging. This past week saw new records, with the official death toll topping 300 one day. Mexican health authorities say the virus is at its peak, especially in and around Mexico City. Maria Luisa Tafoya runs a small funeral home in the eastern reaches of the city.

MARIA LUISA TAFOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says she's had to wait up to four days for space to open up in the crematories where she normally sends bodies.

TAFOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There just aren't enough facilities to handle all the dead," she says. Another funeral director, Rene Bautista Portillo, says his two crematories are running at full capacity. We talk outside the small funeral home he manages behind one of the city's largest COVID-designated hospitals.

RENE BAUTISTA PORTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says the crisis is hardest on the families who first weren't able to visit their loved ones in the hospital and now, because of the health rules, have only five minutes behind a window to say goodbye. Given these grim scenes, this assessment from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday was surprising.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. He's announced that hundreds of towns where the virus has not been reported can gradually lift restrictions. And even where there have been COVID-19 cases, he said key industries tied to the U.S. manufacturing supply chain can also reopen.

Lopez Obrador has never fully embraced strict lockdown measures, arguing that they hurt the poor. The Mexican economy was already in recession before the virus hit. So when U.S. companies and officials began pushing for Mexican firms to resume production, the president was happy to oblige. Daniel Kerner of the Eurasia Group explains Lopez Obrador's thinking.

DANIEL KERNER: I think that more than pressure from the U.S. is that he agrees with those demands because he thinks that closing these sectors are problematic for the Mexican economy and the Mexican people.

KAHN: The lockdown has been devastating to Mexico's economy, but even members of the president's own party say now is not the time to open back up. The governor of Puebla state, home to one of the largest VW plants in the world, says everything will collapse if Mexico gets back to business too soon.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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