Monday, April 27, 2009

Mexico flu scare empties streets, churches, bars

26 Apr 2009 21:05:25 GMT
Source: Reuters
(Refiles to correct name of Mexico City's mayor)

(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click on [nFLU])

* Top soccer matches played in empty stadiums

* Mayor says may have to shut down mass transport system

* Empty streets in normally vibrant city

By Helen Popper and Mica Rosenberg

MEXICO CITY, April 26 (Reuters) - One of the world's biggest cities slowed to a snail's pace on Sunday as millions in the Mexican capital hid indoors to avoid infection from a flu virus that has killed up to 81 people.

The Roman Catholic faithful listened to mass on the radio rather than go to church, a professional soccer game was played in an empty stadium and weekend cyclists stayed off the road in a lock-down of a normally chaotic city of 20 million people.

"This is the first time I've left the house in two days. I had to get some air," Juan Casiano a 39-year-old office worker said walking briskly through a park in the upscale Polanco neighborhood. "But I'm going to stay the rest of the day inside."

Fears of a global swine flu epidemic grew with with 20 cases in the United States and six in Canada, and possible infections also popped up as far afield as Europe and New Zealand. [ID:nN26482522]

All the deaths from the new flu so far have been in Mexico, mostly in and around the capital, once the center of the Aztec empire and now one of Latin America's most important centers of business, government, culture and tourism.

Bars and nightclubs were ordered shut for 10 days and on Saturday night streets usually packed with revelers in the trendy Condesa district were empty with improvised signs on the darkened windows advising revelers to stay away.

"People last night were buying some wine and beer to drink at home instead of going out," said Ricardo Martinez working at a corner convenience store.

Some bars tried to skirt the requirements to let drinkers in, hiring medical personnel to take their temperatures outside and promising to turn away anyone with a fever.

The Mexican tradition of large family dinners on Sunday died hard, with restaurants still serving diners, some of whom wore surgical face masks. Some people maintained their daily routines, jogging or taking walks in the city parks.

City workers cleaned out ventilation systems in the labyrinthian subway in fear the swine flu virus might contaminate passengers

Soldiers gave out surgical masks all around the city.

A professional league soccer game between the popular Pumas and Chivas teams kicked off behind closed doors at the stadium used for the 1968 Olympic Games. Fans were banned under a government recommendation against large crowds gathering.

The giant Aztec Stadium, which has hosted two World Cup finals, was also to be closed to fans later on Sunday when the America and Tecos clubs face each other.


Mass was canceled at churches throughout the city, including the cathedral in the massive Zocalo square and the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where millions of people visit each year to pay homage to Mexico's most revered Catholic figure.

A few worshipers dotted church pews, many keeping their mouths covered and some offering prayers for those already infected with the flu.

"I asked God to prevent more people dying and that this scourge ends quickly," said Oscar Gonzalez, 46, a hairdresser on a church steps in western Mexico City.

On the doors of the church, signs read: "Under government orders, all religious services have been canceled." Worshipers listened to a broadcast of mass.

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said his city government was considering the possibility of shutting down the mass transport system.

"If we don't succeed in decreasing the number of people infected we will have to reduce practically all activity in the city," Ebrard said in a radio interview.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico postponed over 5,000 visa appointments this week to limit the congregation of large crowds. On average work days, hundreds of people wait in lines outside the embassy waiting to process travel papers to the United States. (Additional reporting Rodrigo Martinez; Editing by Kieran Murray)