Just hours after Mexican health officials reported record numbers of deaths and new coronavirus infections, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday he will resume his travel schedule next week, flying commercial to the beach destination of Cancun.
Prior to the pandemic, the president, who has yet to leave Mexico on an international trip, effectively operated like he was still on the campaign trail, crisscrossing the country each week to hug and shake hands with his admirers.
Throughout two months of social distancing measures, López Obrador has fretted about the impact on the economy, and stubbornly refused to halt his key infrastructure projects. One of those, the Mayan Train, which is supposed to whisk tourists around the Yucatan Peninsula, will be the objective of his first scheduled trip since March.
“I’m going to be careful,” López Obrador said. “If the airline requires you to use a mask, I’m going to use it.” He said doctors are recommending that he limit his flying and travel more by car, so he planned to drive back to the capital from the Caribbean coast with stops in epidemic hotspots, including Veracruz and his home state of Tabasco.
He said he would restrict his events to no more than 50 people and maintain a healthy distance. It will be a dramatic change from his usual events, where crowds press close to him to pass letters or shout requests.
“I ask you to help us now that I can’t have direct communication, but we are going to collect your feelings and that’s why I’m going,” he said. “I want to do it in every state and inform the people about how we are going to emerge from this health and economic crisis. The Mayan Train is very important because there are jobs and work in circumstances that they’re needed.”
López Obrador will be present for the kickoff of the train’s first segment. The president has referenced the 950-mile project repeatedly in recent days as a critical source of employment as the economy continues to hemorrhage jobs. He said it will generate 80,000 jobs, though critics complain it threatens the region’s water supplies and wildlife.
Mexico’s Social Security Institute said in April Mexico had lost 550,000 jobs during the epidemic and López Obrador recently said another 400,000 have been lost in May.
After Cancun, López Obrador is to visit Playa del Carmen and then drive inland to Merida before stopping in the state of Campeche, all points on the proposed train’s route.
As he makes his way back toward the capital he will stop at his other massive infrastructure project, the oft-criticized Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco.
López Obrador has made propping up the state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos one of his signature goals and increasing refinery capacity is part of that. Critics argue investment in a new refinery of that size makes little sense with the world’s growing shift to renewables, and even less now with the plunging price of oil.
Tuesday night, Health Undersecretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell, who López Obrador made the face of the government’s pandemic response, said Mexico was reaching the crest of the epidemic, but said in parts of the country it could drag on into October. For the first time, officials reported more than 500 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths.
Mexico has reported more than 74,500 infections and more than 8,100 deaths, both considered to be substantial undercounts because of the country’s extremely low testing rate.
López Obrador said in that in the “new normal,” he plans to spend one week on the road and one in the capital. Prior to the epidemic, he was spending more time in Mexico City during the week, but traveling every weekend.
In late March, almost a month after Mexico’s first confirmed case, López Obrador was still traveling and holding mass events. He downplayed the severity of the virus and pulled religious amulets out of his wallet to show how he was protecting himself then.
Throughout the two months of social distancing restrictions, López Obrador mixed messages of the need to quarantine and the urgency of getting back to work.
On May 18, the federal government allowed some mining, construction and auto manufacturing companies to resume operations. More than 300 “towns of hope,” places without active infections were told they could resume normal life, though most declined.
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“I hope that our adversaries are not going to provoke, saying that we are not respecting health measures,” López Obrador said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.