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Swine Flu Precautions Observed as Mexico City Restaurants Reopen

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Many restaurants in Mexico City have reopened despite lingering concerns about swine flu. Video by Joshua Partlow, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post

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By William Booth and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 7, 2009

MEXICO CITY, May 6 -- With the comforting phrase "At your service," frazzled residents of this city at the center of the swine flu epidemic were welcomed back Wednesday to their favorite seats in taco joints and fancy restaurants, where they ordered their first meals out in almost two weeks.

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"I am unbelievably happy to be doing the most simple thing, which is to sit here at a table with my friends, sipping coffee and thinking about lunch," said Agustín Morales, camped out at Panadería Maque, a corner cafe in the leafy bohemian neighborhood known as Condesa. Morales, who described himself as a semi-retired businessman, said, "Mexicans are happiest when eating."

Twelve days after they were ordered to cease serving sit-down diners, Mexico City's restaurants reopened to a collective "Ahhh."

It was the most visible sign that the city was returning to normal. Or what passes for normal in a chaotic megalopolis of 20 million people. High schools and universities are scheduled to open Thursday, the same day as museums and cultural centers. Movie theaters are expected to raise the curtain soon, but with a twist -- you can't sit next to your date, as regulations require empty seats between viewers.

Public health officials cautioned that the epidemic was not over, and President Felipe Calderón said that it is "not time to declare victory." Health Minister José Ángel Córdova, speaking at a news conference Wednesday, said there are now 1,112 confirmed swine flu cases in Mexico and 42 confirmed deaths from the virus. He also said that six people have died this month.

Officials allowed the restaurants to reopen but told them they could seat only 50 percent of their normal capacity to avoid crowding. Waiters and cooks must wear surgical masks.

Still, a waiter with mask is better than no waiter, especially if the server is extending a plate of stuffed chilies laced with walnut sauce.

Guadalupe Loaeza, a columnist for La Reforma newspaper, said the city is getting its appetite back, and not only because fears of the flu are passing.

"It's very funny," she said. "I think a lot of men, they were sick and tired to be home, with their wives, watching the TV, watching the telenovelas and the Discovery Channel. My husband was becoming so anxious, he was getting bored with me."

Loaeza was reached via cellphone as she sat down to eat a late breakfast Wednesday at Casa Portuguesa, in the Polanco neighborhood. "I arrived at the restaurant, and all the waiters came toward me and said 'Please' and 'You're welcome' and 'How can we help you? Do you want coffee? Do you want orange juice?' They were so enthusiastic! They were so happy to see their clients coming back. You ask for a glass of water, and three waiters will bring it to you," she said.

"My understanding from the morning paper is that they haven't reopened the cantinas yet, which strikes me as a shame," said David Lida, author of "First Stop in the New World," a book about contemporary Mexico City. Lida pointed out that this Sunday will be a serious litmus test.

"Mother's Day is sacred in Mexico, and normally all of the restaurants are packed," he said. "God forbid Mama enter a kitchen on Mother's Day, and her husband and sons don't even know how to boil water. So everyone will be at the restaurants. At least that is the tradition. If they don't do big business, then the city is in even bigger trouble."


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