- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

UPDATED:

MEXICO CITY — Mexico Health Secretary Jose Cordova said Monday most businesses across the country will reopen by midweek because the swine flu outbreak appears to be retreating.

Mr. Cordova said the economy should approach full swing Wednesday, after the government began closing such non-essential businesses as cafes, stadiums and libraries five days ago.

“The evolution of the epidemic is now in its phase of descent,” Mr. Cordova said over the weekend. He also said the outbreak appeared to have peaked in Mexico between April 23 and 28.

However, businesses reopening Wednesday will be a day too later for Cinco de Mayo — the Mexican holiday to commemorate a victory against French invaders in 1862.

New cases of the flu virus — which mixes swine, avian and human flu strains — continue to be confirmed around the world. But Mexico has presented data in the past couple of days showing a decline in serious flu cases and fewer people being admitted to hospitals.

Mr. Cordova said Monday that Mexico, the epicenter of the H1N1 virus, now has confirmed 727 cases, including 26 deaths.

In addition to the virus likely resulting in smaller-scale celebrations Tuesday, the outbreak also appears to be having a long-term impact.

In some areas, the tourist business reports an 85 percent cancellation rate in reservations for the summer, threatening layoffs for many of the industry’s 2.8 million workers.

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Tourism provides one of the three top cash sources for an economy already battered by the global recession in its other two income earners - oil production and remittances from overseas workers.

Economists had expected the Mexican economy to shrink about 4.5 percent this year, but they say the flu outbreak may push it down an extra percentage point each month the epidemic rages.

To stop the virus, the government shuttered everything it could in Mexico City at one of the worst possible times: between Labor Day on May 1 and the Cinco de Mayo on May 5 .

The shutdown has included street stands, part of the thriving informal economy that normally cushions much of the economic problems in the country.

Tuesday’s Cinco de Mayo became the critical date, set by the government as the final day of a self-imposed “quarantine,” which included the cancellation of even the traditional ceremony where young conscripts in their military service swear their fealty to the Mexican homeland.

Joaquin Lopez Doriga, the top TV news anchor, predicted Tuesday’s holiday won’t be a complete disappointment.

“Not even the bug can stop the ‘puente,’ ” the anchor said, using the term for “little party.”

Sunday also marked the official start of campaigning for July 5 congressional elections — but all public campaigning was banned to prevent gatherings where the virus could spread, Associated Press reported.

Gabriela Cuevas Barron of the conservative National Action Party giddily said she was launching Mexico’s first virtual campaign, promising in a webcast to work for a cleaner and safer Mexico City — for now, through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Meanwhile, the leftist Democratic Revolution Party was already up with a Facebook page for its candidates, according to AP.

Mexican authorities are winning praise for the resolute, if somewhat improvised, way they attacked the crisis, in contrast to the paralysis after the 1985 earthquake.

“This time, [the government] is at the forefront, even if there are many actions that could be criticized,” said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a political columnist.

Elsewhere in the world, the flu epidemic spread to more states in the United States, and in Asia, Europe and Latin America. In Canada, pigs reportedly caught the disease from humans.

One death has been reported outside of Mexico — that of a Mexican child visiting the United States.

Staff writer Joseph Weber contributed to this article from Washington.

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