How COVID-19 travel restrictions are hurting border towns
El Paso, Texas – About a mile from the Paso Del Norte International Bridge, which connects downtown El Paso to Mexico, Emilio Mendiola sorts neon snapbacks into bins labeled “Special $ 2.99 plus tax” – and what accounted for 90% of its activity.
“I’m not kidding. It’s so bad.” The manager of “Mr. Hats” has laid off all but two of his full-time employees since the closure of international bridges to non-nationals whose travel to the United States is deemed non-essential. The shutdown shut down tourism, shopping and dining activities in the nearby Mexican town of Juárez that once fueled rows of El Paso vendors – and it cost Mendiola 90% of its business. More than 10 million people cross the bridge to El Paso from Juárez each year.
The Department of Homeland Security extended travel restrictions to at least August 21 on Wednesday.
Mendiola pays 60% of her monthly rent, a concession her landlord made that could help her store open until her 10th birthday this year.
“Historically, we’ve been so successful,” said the store manager, dropping off an inventory box to reveal the words “American fighter” on his camouflage t-shirt. “We’re not complaining. We pay our bills. Usually it’s all done – if they just open the bridge.”
Nine doors down, Hector Ayala uprooted his uniform store after 26 years, downsizing to a smaller storefront to stay afloat. “Before the bridge closed, sales were so busy that I had to put two salespeople outside just to handle it,” he said, pointing to a quiet street. “There would be 30 people there. Now people are pouring in.” Ayala has reduced its staff from 23 to 10 people.
At nearby Perfumeria Genesis, owner Lorenzo Borjes cut staff hours in half. “They say, ‘next month, next month, for six months,'” he said. “If they don’t open by December, everyone will be leaving.” He gestured towards an abandoned storefront outside. “This entire block will be empty.”
El Paso’s retail sales exports are expected to hit $ 1 billion in 2020, according to Tom Fullerton, professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Due to border travel restrictions, they likely missed that mark by at least $ 200 million last year,” Fullerton added.
For some businesses, any reopening will come too late. The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said 30% of small businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans in the city have closed since the restrictions took effect in March 2020.
As many U.S. businesses begin to reopen, retailers across U.S. borders are left in 16-month limbo because their business is so dependent on customers who drive and walk across the border. . Canadian and Mexican tourists can still travel to the United States by plane with proof of a negative coronavirus test or recovery from COVID-19.
This week, Canada announced plans to reopen its borders to vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents on August 9.
In a statement Wednesday, the Mexican Foreign Secretary suggested that “the accelerated rate of vaccination against covid-19 at the border” creates favorable conditions for the reopening.
“What our businesses are asking for is not to just turn on the floodgates,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of El Paso. “Think about opening it in phases. In this first phase, let those who are vaccinated be the ones who come in.” The population of El Paso has a high vaccination rate – over 70% of its adults have received at least one injection.
But Mexico’s vaccination rate is low, just under 18%. The United States has tried to increase these levels in areas near the border. Last month, it sent 1.35 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Mexico for distribution along the border. But the initial shipments went to the world’s busiest border crossing – Tijuana-San Ysidro – in the state of Baja California – and ignored 38 other Mexican municipalities bordering the United States, including Ciudad Juárez.
Jon Barela, CEO of the economic development organization Borderplex Alliance, detailed his frustration in a letter to Vice President Harris. “Ciudad Juárez, Mexico’s second-largest border city, with 1.5 million people bordering El Paso, Texas, has been left out,” he wrote, arguing for a ” equitable distribution “of vaccines across the border.
“It was maddening when the Mexican president decided to take all of these vaccines for Mexican border communities, and he basically used them all in one place, not next to our land ports,” MP Veronica Escobar told CBS. News.
“If we had had a binational COVID plan from the start, I don’t think we would have seen so many deaths,” Escobar said. “I don’t think we would have seen so much economic devastation. And I think our ports would have been reopened long ago.”
After U.S. vaccine shipments passed through Mexican communities bordering Texas, executives in El Paso and U.S. companies in Mexico took matters into their own hands, carrying out local vaccination campaigns. El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego led a county-wide effort to vaccinate 50,000 maquiladora workers. Hundreds of employees from US-based assembly plants – including Johnson & Johnson – boarded buses daily to the Tornillo Port of Entry to receive snapshots.
“We really hope with all our hearts that we get back to normal very soon,” Juárez Mayor Armando Cabada told CBS News. Cabada said the city’s mass vaccination program is targeting herd immunity by the end of July.
For now, vaccination figures remain too low to convince DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to reverse border policy. In notices to the Federal Register, Mayorkas noted “positive developments in recent weeks,” but stressed the dangers posed by outbreaks of Delta variants, especially among the unvaccinated.
“It’s extremely fictitious to close the borders and think you’re going anywhere,” exclaimed Samaniego. “I don’t think you can deal with this situation until you face reality. We are a very symbiotic relationship.”
“When Ciudad Juárez sneezes, El Paso catches a cold,” said Escobar, whose neighborhood surrounds El Paso. “When El Paso sneezes, Ciudad Juárez catches a cold.”
Mendiola cannot afford to catch a cold. Asked about his message to lawmakers in Washington, the store manager paused. “I want the bridges open, but I have some common sense. I don’t want to open, just to get a few dollars in sales if we’re going to put people at risk.”
His hands move from the direction of the international bridge to the ceiling. “At the end of the day, it’s not Washington. It’s up to the guy above to decide.”