MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico issued guidelines for restarting operations in the automotive, mining and construction sectors on Monday, pushing ahead with reopening the economy despite a growing national toll from the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about unsafe work sites.
With Mexico’s coronavirus death toll having surged past 5,000, and known cases set to surpass 50,000, officials are wrestling with how to restart key industries without triggering greater spread of the virus.
The moves to loosen restrictions follow growing pressure from the United States to reopen factories that are vital to supply chains of U.S.-based businesses, especially in the vast automotive sector.
Mexico’s reopening plans have drawn criticism from some politicians worried that the still-rising pandemic tide in Latin America makes it unsafe to send more people to work.
Mexico’s guidelines, published overnight, require companies to submit to authorities health protocols for exiting the coronavirus lockdown. Firms will then be told within 72 hours if they can resume operations.
General Motors Co, which operates one of its most important plants in the city of Silao in central Mexico, told workers there to prepare to return to work on Wednesday. GM also told Mexican suppliers the company expected to comply quickly with the new regulations.
Activists comprised of former GM workers on Monday called for an independent committee elected by workers to inspect the company’s plants for proper sanitary measures.
“We think they are measures that they are not really going to take seriously,” said Israel Cervantes, who says he was unjustly fired from the company last year after trying to create an independent union.
In a video sent to Silao employees, GM said workers will be spaced apart, screened for COVID-19 symptoms upon entering each day and be given masks and glasses to be worn at all times, among other measures.
GM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the United States, the auto industry slowly returned to life on Monday, with some vehicle assembly plants reopening after the coronavirus lockdown while suppliers geared up to support a sector that accounts for about 6% of U.S. economic activity.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said companies would have to answer an extensive questionnaire as part of efforts to protect workers.
“Today they can start doing the paperwork so that companies in the construction, transport, and mining industries can start their activities, beginning with their health protocols,” Lopez Obrador said in his daily conference.
The government said the guidelines will lead to a gradual reopening that follows a so-called traffic light system put in place by authorities.
Some 300 municipalities with no coronavirus cases and bordering others with no cases – called “municipalities of hope” – were also due to start lifting the lockdown on Monday although Mexican media reported some states did not allow the relaxation.
On May 12, Mexico reported a record number of deaths in a single day with 353 fatalities. That grim news was followed on Friday by a reported 2,437 new coronavirus infections, a one-day record rise in cases since the start of the pandemic.
A poll by newspaper Reforma showed on Monday that 67% of Mexicans believe the worst of the pandemic is still to come, while only 20% think the worst is over, according to a survey of 400 adults conducted from May 12 to 14.
Critics, including some within Lopez Obrador’s own ruling MORENA party, worry that restarting factories too soon could exacerbate the spread the of the virus before it has been brought under control.
Reporting by Sharay Angulo, Raul Cortes Fernandez and Daina Beth Solomon; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman