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Tourists Get Mixed Messages About Travel To Sonora During The Holidays As COVID-19 Cases Spike

In March, the Sonoran beach town Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point, shut its doors to the outside world.

“It was terrible. I can’t say any other word. It was terrible,” said Maru Zacatelco, owner of EcoFun Adventures which offers sightseeing tours on the Sea of Cortez.

Like many other businesses in Rocky Point, EcoFun Adventures closed for nearly five monthsthis year as the city tried to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But since Rocky Point reopened its beaches in August, Zacatelco says tourists have been flocking back, despite binational restrictions on travel at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I see more people this December than any other December. Which I really think is because people were locked up for so long early on,” she said. “So yeah, I mean surprisingly we’re doing really good.”

She hopes it stays that way. And so does Mayor Kiko Munro.

“If anybody decides that Peñasco is the place to be, we’re ready for them,” he said.

He said Rocky Point has successfully balanced restarting its tourism-dependent economywhile keeping people safe. The city has only reported 336 cases - that’s far fewer than most cities in Arizona or the rest of Sonora, where cases are soaring. Though because Rocky Point, like other parts of Mexico, has conducted much less testing than Arizona, it’s like that the true number of COVID-19 cases are actually much higher.

And Munro admitted that Rocky Point hasn’t been entirely spared from the toll of the virus.

“The mortality rate is really really high. It’s 17%,” he said.

However, he said, the 50 reported coronavirus deaths in Rocky Point are due to local transmission, not the city’s re-embrace of tourism.

Even after nearly three months on lockdown and with new COVID-19 precautions, Rocky Point received more than 800,000 visitors this year.

That’s less than half as many as usual, according to the city’s tourism bureau. And while some months this fall were abnormally busy after the city’s lockdown during the spring high season, that’s unlikely to be the case this winter. The beaches are always less busy when cooler temperatures hit, and the city’s strict sanitation protocols, occupancy limits and 11 p.m. curfew will likely put a damper on holiday festivities that usually attract visitors.

But, Munro said, visitors who want to come are welcome.

“Of course we always relate to the staying home policy which is the best in order to prevent COVID. But if you’re thinking of going out of town you might as well consider us as a safe place to visit,” he said, adding later: “Again, we’re reinforcing the call to stay home. But if you’re not going to stay home, if you are thinking about getting out of the city, you can rest assured that Peñasco is taking the necessary precautions.”

Please Don't Come

Other leaders, though, are sending a different message.

“We’re putting out a call, very respectfully, for people to avoid traveling, avoiding leaving their homes, avoid getting sick or getting other people sick,” said Guaymas Mayor Sara Valle. “I don’t think it is the right moment to visit our municipality.”

It’s not easy, she said, for a community where many people who work in the tourism industry are already struggling this year because of lost jobs and income. But she hopes getting through 2020 safely will.

At least for now, though, Guaymas — home to the popular beachside destination San Carlos — won’t be closing beaches and tourist attractions like it did earlier this year, Valle said. But with cases rising around the state and across the border, she thinks travelers will heed her call to stay away this winter in hopes of being able to visit when it’s safer next year.

“There are so many people in Phoenix who come to visit us. People from here, with family here, and we want them and we care about them. But this year, we want them to stay home,” she said.

Mixed Messages

These conflicting messages aren’t just a matter of different policies in different places.

Earlier this month, as Sonora governor Claudia Pavlovich urged Mexican nationals, known as paisanos, not to come home for the holidays, the state’s tourism head Luis Nunez was touting the tourist appeal of a newly earned “safe travel” certification.

Meanwhile, travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border have been extended into next year, and the CDC has issued its highest level advisory against travel to Mexico, warning U.S. citizens that if they test positive for COVID-19 they could be denied reentry into the United States.

But U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau told the newspaper El Financiero this month that visiting Mexico during the pandemic is safe — as long as travelers follow sanitary protocols.

These confusing messages and poorly implemented or scantly enforced policies are putting people’s health at risk, said Maria de Barajas, a researcher with Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Barajas has been studying cross-border mobility amid the pandemic.

“We’re turning a blind eye, telling people to come, half-way protecting ourselves, and we’re creating a situation where we’re going to end up having to shut everything down not by choice but because people are getting sick and dying,” she said.

Barajas doesn’t agree with U.S.-Mexico border travel restrictions because she considers much of the travel being barred essential for border communities.

But she says the restrictions haven’t worked anyway because U.S. citizens and permanent residents, unlike their Mexican counterparts, can still easily cross back and forth. That’s because they are allowed to return to the U.S. under the restrictions, and there is little southbound enforcement in Mexico to keep them out.

“That’s created an asymmetry that does nothing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but has very serious impacts on people living in border towns,” Barajas said.

And economic hardship in Mexico, where government assistance is essentially nonexistent, has left leaders little choice but to throw open the doors to tourists.

With coronavirus cases spreading quickly on both sides of the border, she said, tourists shouldn’t be traveling.

“Well, the truth is they shouldn’t be going out. I mean, the reality is these people should stay home right now,” she said. “But we can see that they are traveling. And if we can’t stop them from traveling, we need to take all the right precautions.”

Rather than continuing to talk about restrictions that aren’t being enforced, she said, government leaders, business owners and travelers themselves need to be doing more to actually protect workers and communities from coronavirus, she said. That means increased testing and contract tracing, especially for workers, as well as careful adherence to social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures.

Stay Open, Stay Safe

Last month, Jose Flores recorded a live show packed with tourists at his Rocky Point business the Boo Bar. He said seeing those visitors sitting on his patio, listening to music and looking out over the ocean was a happy moment from a very stressful year. He needs those cross-border visitors to stay afloat.

“A lot of us can’t afford to be shut down any more, because we went through this for months and are still suffering through strict protocols and the potential for getting sick,” he said. “But another lockdown, that would be the worst, the worst other than getting sick and dying.”

Flores thinks that there is a way for tourists to visit safely, and that Rocky Point is doing a good job. Bars like his can only operate at 40 percent capacity, they require face masks and workers have been trained to carefully sanitize.

But tourists also need to do their part to keep the city safe, he said, because the only thing he fears more than shutting down is for friends and family to get sick.

“If you feel sick or if you feel scared, I wouldn’t travel, for one,” he said. “And for two, abide by city protocols, state protocols and establishment protocols. It’s not our fault that you need to wear a mask, but you need to wear a mask. It’s not our fault that you need to step on a sanitary mat, but you need to step on the sanitary mat, and you have to get your temperature checked. So I think above all, have respect for our current protocols and restrictions. And you’ll enjoy yourself.”

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.