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Mexico City gets ready to hit the town

MEXICO CITY, May 5 – "At last!" is the refrain being heard in Mexico City as residents prepared to leave their homes following the decision by authorities to ease restrictions imposed at the height of the swine flu crisis.

"At last," said Ana Maria Rodriguez, a 40-year-old teacher contemplating the re-opening on Wednesday of restaurants that had been closed for over a week.

"We live in the capital, we\’re not used to being cooped up at home. We\’re used to restaurants, to going out at night," she said.

Cintia Lopez, 21, walking with a friend through the still-muted historic center, was equally relieved at being able to reactivate the normally frenetic social life Mexicans enjoyed in the city — until the flu spoiled the party.

"It was so boring these past few days. We\’re finally going to be able to go out again," she told AFP.

Many other residents were visibly impatient to throw off the silence and stress that were so uncharacteristic to the city, unseen for decades.

"Mexico used to be like this, 20 years ago. You used to be able to drive around this easily," said a taxi-driver slipping through abnormally light traffic on to one of the main streets of a city that is usually choked with vehicles.

But even if the brief respite from hellish traffic jams might be missed, Mexico City\’s after-work get-togethers and animated street commerce had been missed more.

"This is great news, because vendors like me weren\’t getting enough money to eat" during the shutdown, said Leidi Molina, a 23-year-old running a handicrafts store. The foreign tourists her business depended on had not been seen for days.

Mexican authorities on April 28 ordered the closure of all activities where people congregated and created a risk for the transmission of the A(H1N1) virus.

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That meant shuttering the dining areas of restaurants and cafes (which were allowed to serve only take-away meals), and turning the lock on bars, nightclubs, cinemas and theaters in the capital.

Nationally, even games of football — that Mexican passion — were played to empty stadia, with unhappy fans forced to watch on television. Aztec and Mayan ruins were off-limits. Schools have been closed since April 24.

But after seeing the flu epidemic wane this week, authorities on Monday announced they would gradually lift the restrictions.

From Wednesday, businesses and restaurants could re-open. Thursday, museums and churches would be permitted to operate, and high schools and universities would resume lessons. Next Monday would see younger pupils back in classrooms.

Nightclubs and bars though would have to wait for a further assessment before they could greet patrons.

Jose Alberto Lopez, a taco cook in an eaterie, said the easing of the curbs "is really good."

"Business went down a lot. This is such a relief," he said.

According to Mexico City\’s hospitality sector, the shutdown cost around 100 million dollars a day in lost revenue and threatened 450,000 jobs.

The finance ministry said that, if the suspension of activity had continued for three weeks, it would have shaved 70 billion dollars off Mexico\’s economy, or up to 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.

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It was not only commerces that were hit. The wallets of millions of Mexicans also suffered under the crisis, which killed at least 26 people and infected around 800 others, according to the latest tally.

"It\’s just as well that more people will be walking in the streets, that the tourists will be back, because I was driving around and around and there was nobody. I have to pay my monthly car repayments and don\’t know where the money\’s going to come from," said one young taxi-driver, as he at last picked up a fare.

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