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.
"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."
"We were getting clobbered," said Alberto Islas, who is a part owner of several Mexico City restaurants, as well as a security consultant and expert in counternarcotics.
"It had to be done," Islas said of the restaurant closures. "But the economic impact was big."
Hardest hit, he said, are the waiters, who get a small salary and make their money on tips. "And they live on a daily basis," Islas said.
"This is the worst thing we've gone through. We used to have so many people here," said Miguel Seberiano, 30, a waiter at Xacto restaurant. Xacto, like many other eateries, served food to go during the shutdown, but few of its customers chose to order out in the past few days, so business stopped almost entirely. "We hope that things will go back to normal."
David Israel, 48, a flight attendant with Mexicana Airlines, was drinking cappuccino at a sidewalk table at El Ocho, in Condesa. He had given up the face mask he wore at the beginning of the outbreak.
"I believe that you have to keep living your life, while taking some precautions," Israel said. "But it's not like it was in the beginning."
Israel said he doesn't regret the drastic measures taken to contain the flu's spread, including closures of schools and businesses. "I think it was a good moment to reconnect with your family, the people that have children and spouses. In my case, I live alone, but it was also a good time to rest and relax," he said.
According to new and ever-changing regulations, Mexico City restaurants may open at 7 a.m. but must close by 10 p.m. The eateries also must keep their tables far apart and serve only 50 percent of their legal capacity, measures taken to lessen the chances of spreading the virus. "That's why you can see I have one table in service, one not," said Manuel Sulkin, owner of El Ocho, pointing to all the empty tables. "Right now, we're expecting every half-hour the rules will change."
But Sulkin agreed that Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are called, are fed up with staying inside.
"They're crazy," he said. "They want to go out."
He said he expects that restaurants will be packed, because the seating capacity has been cut by half. "It's better than nothing," Sulkin said. "The Condesa was literally a ghost town."
At Xel-Ha restaurant, which serves Yucatan cuisine, the staff spent Wednesday in a rush, scouring everything from the windows to the ceilings to get ready to open Thursday. There were small new things to learn. Instead of laying out bowls of red, green and habanero salsa on each table for several customers throughout the day, they have to throw out everything that is not eaten, said manager José Manuel Ogando.
"Now you have to ask, 'What type of salsa do you want?' So you don't have to throw it all out," he said.
Ivonne González, a 36-year-old model, was eating lunch with a friend at a sidewalk table at Xacto. After the first three days of flu anxiety kept her indoors, she said, she went about her normal errands.
"Well, with my mask," she added.
But she said she would not be kept inside Wednesday. "Today's a shopping day."