Prodded by US, Mexico aims to restart industrial plants

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Women hang clothes out to dry on a terrace in Mexico City, Saturday, May 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

MEXICO CITY – President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged Wednesday to begin reopening Mexico's economy next week — under pressure at home and from U.S. officials — even as the country saw its largest one-day jump in coronavirus cases, hospitals are reeling, and testing remains inadequate.

Economy Secretary Graciela Marquez said the move would be “gradual, orderly and cautious," and that by May 18, industries like construction, mining, and car and truck manufacturing would be allowed to resume. But the governor of a state that is home to major auto plants warned that lifting restrictions now could lead to the pandemic getting “out of control.”

The country's lockdown — which began in March — will remain in place, but work in the industries Marquez cited will be allowed to begin again because Mexico’s top advisory body on the pandemic, the General Health Council, said Tuesday it had decided to classify them as “essential activities.”

Mexico has been under pressure from U.S. officials to reopen auto assembly plants, in particular, because without them, integrated supply chains would make it hard for plants in the U.S. and Canada to reopen. At home, the National Alliance of Small Business Owners has also complained about lockdown measures, often imposed, quasi-legally, at the local level.

But others in Mexico fear a reopening — saying the measures were too long in coming and haven't been in place for long enough. The announcement came as hospitals from Mexico City to its northern border with the U.S. were nearing overload, and many manufacturing workers in border cities like Ciudad Juarez had only recently been sent home in the wake of protests demanding a shutdown.

Mexican health officials on Tuesday reported the country's largest single-day jump in COVID-19 case numbers, with 1,997 new cases and 353 deaths, bringing the total to has over 38,000 confirmed cases and almost 4,000 deaths.

Officials have acknowledged the actual number of infections is many times that. Mexico has done relatively little testing, with about 120,000 tests reported so far in a country of almost 130 million. With only about 0.6 people per 1,000 inhabitants tested, Mexico has the lowest rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That will make it hard to judge whether the reopening will risk an upsurge in cases — and to see one coming if it does. Marquez, the economy secretary, said that schools and businesses would be allowed to reopen in 269 townships that have no confirmed cases — or in about one-tenth of Mexico’s townships. They are largely in rural areas in north-central and southeastern Mexico.