Mexico City shuts itself in to stay healthy

Closures hit businesses, morale hard

A man helped a woman put on her mask yesterday in Mexico City, where schools and movie theaters are closed. A man helped a woman put on her mask yesterday in Mexico City, where schools and movie theaters are closed. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)
By Julie Watson
Associated Press / April 29, 2009
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MEXICO CITY - Nine-year-old Cecilia Ines Lopez has been watching nine hours of television a day. Her 16-year-old aunt has spent so much time on Instant Messenger she complains she has nothing more to say.

For five long days, the only glimpse the girls have caught of their normally bustling neighborhood has been through the barred windows of their cramped cinderblock row house. Their parents - like many across Mexico City - grounded them when swine flu hit.

"We're like caged lions," Cecilia's grandmother, Constancia Sosa, said yesterday in the family's tiny living room, which was decorated with ornately carved wooden couches, religious statues, family photos, and artificial flowers.

"We sit in here all day, listen to the news about how bad things are. One more week of this and we're going to fall into a serious depression - or become hysterical."

This city of 20 million people has shut itself in as authorities try to prevent the epidemic from spreading. But with no schools, no movie theaters, and no cafes to while away the hours, many are going stir crazy.

Yesterday, officials banned Mexico City's 25,000 restaurants from serving customers - takeout is still OK - and closed gyms, swimming pools, and pool halls. Nightclubs, museums, zoos, and movie theaters are off-limits. And schools have been closed nationwide until at least May 6.

For the six-member Lopez family, their 13-by-13-foot home in a working-class neighborhood has become a bunker. Life has been reduced to painful stretches of boredom and irritation, shattered by bouts of anxiety.

Sosa, 52, has had it with her daughter Ilse. Since school closed, the 16-year-old has been practicing her Mexican folk dances - with plenty of foot-stomping - in the living room. She also spends her time talking on the phone or messaging friends - and is sick of both.

Sosa is also fed up with Cecilia and her 10-year-old sister, who race up and down the stairs as they search for activities to keep themselves occupied. They can't leave the house - only Cecilia's father goes out to work, and to pick up food and surgical masks.

Cecilia said it isn't her fault: "I sit here. I go upstairs to see what there is to play with. I get bored. I come down here to see what they're doing. And then I go to sleep."

"Yesterday we watched nine hours of TV," she said, rolling her eyes and slouching in her chair in exasperation.

Outside, the overcrowded city has become almost spacious. Traffic flows easily down broad avenues.

Even one of the city's main produce markets, La Merced, has emptied. Normally, thousands of people jostle among the towering mounds of jalapeños, mangos, and squash blossoms. Yesterday there was hardly a soul, save produce sellers and the occasional health worker taping up warning posters.

"I'm more scared about the drop in sales than the illness," said Jaime Blas, 50, who was trying to sell pecans and pumpkin seeds with a surgical mask covering his face. "How are we going to eat?"