Mexico shuts business and public venues

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Mexico City’s government on Tuesday ordered all restaurants to close their doors to the public, allowing them to maintain only a skeleton take-out service. 

The measure, which is part of a strategy by local authorities to contain an outbreak of swine flu and will be in force until May 5, is expected to affect more than 25,000 businesses throughout the city. Bars, night clubs, gymnasiums, cinemas, conference centres and a host of other businesses have also been told to shut down.

The decision met with angry responses from many business owners, who complain that the global economic downturn has already hit their companies hard. As if to echo their concern, Mexico’s federal government on Tuesday reported that February’s IGAE, a critical growth indicator, shrank 10.8 per cent - the biggest contraction since records began in 1993. 

However, Marcelo Ebrard, city mayor, justified the actions as necessary to prevent greater risk of the virus spreading: ”We have to prepare for the weeks ahead, and not just from here to May 5. We have to get used to the idea that we are going to live with this virus for a long time.”

The virus, a hybrid of animal and human influenza strains never before seen by scientists, has shaken the city. According to the local health ministry, 25 residents have died from influenza since the outbreak of swine flu, and there are currently more than 300 suspected cases.

Since Monday, city residents have started to raid supermarkets, buying of bottled water, canned fish and pasta in huge quantities. At Wal-Mart’s Superama supermarket in the La Condesa neighbourhood, many shelves lay bare on Tuesday.

Employees said that surgical alcohol and other disinfectant products had sold out on Saturday, along with face masks and surgical gloves. ”There’s nothing left,” said one employee, gesturing towards the row of empty shelves in front of him. 

On Wednesday, supermarkets were expecting another wave of panic buying as the bulk of Mexico’s salaried workers get their bi-monthly pay check. 

Experts say that much of this week’s panic came when the World Health Organisation on Monday elevated the pandemic risk in Mexico one notch to level 4 out of a possible six. On the same day, the US and the European Union issued official warnings to potential travelers.

According to Mexico’s federal government, 152 people have died of influenza since the outbreak of swine flu, although a huge backlog in laboratory testing has prevented authorities to confirm whether all of them were victims of swine flu.

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