We Press On Because There's No Other Way: Running a Restaurant in Mexico City Under COVID-19
When a customer arrives at the entrance to Cicatriz, my all-day restaurant and bar in Mexico City, we stop them at the door.
We greet them, digital thermometer in hand, wearing our cubrebocas y caretas—the masks and plastic visors that fog up in the early evening chill—and raise our voices, enunciating so they understand the rules: Alcohol is only served with food; masks are obligatory; no more than four people per table. Next, we swiftly take their temperature, submit them to an eight-question survey on their personal health—“Are you currently vomiting? Do you have diarrhea?”—and record the results in a daily log. We offer antibacterial gel, ask them to step onto a mat soaked in a bleach mixture, and direct them to their table through the designated entrance. This is the new normal in hospitality. This is operating a restaurant in Mexico during a global pandemic.
In March, as the novel coronavirus descended on the western hemisphere, Mexico was largely on a lag. We watched the reports coming out of Asia and Europe, and as friends started to close their businesses in New York and Los Angeles, we decided to do the same, with just 300 confirmed cases in the entire country. H1N1, the swine flu, had hit Mexico, hard, in 2009, and the city had shut down for two weeks. It can’t be that bad, we thought, so March 21st we closed, confident we would be shuttered for just a month and could float our staff their salaries for that amount of time.
The crisis felt like a far-off but rapidly approaching tsunami looming on the horizon. While the Mexican government dragged its feet to make any formal proclamations, many businesses in CDMX decided to close on their own accord. The authorities’ official responses were full of delays, retractions, incompetence and mixed messages; in March, the president was downplaying the severity of the virus and encouraging crowds to hug and cheek kiss. Throughout the summer, the airport was never shut down, borders were kept open, and formally, restaurants were allowed to stay open for delivery and take-out, though we opted not to: With many of our employees traveling from the next state over and using multiple forms of public transportation we felt it was too big of a risk.
There was a real, concerted, city-wide pause during April and May. But for many of Mexico City’s 20 million-plus residents, quarantine was not an option. For an enormous sector, mired in economic precarity long before the pandemic hit, sheltering in place would mean not eating. While the rich left for their second homes outsides of the city, the poor never had the option of staying inside at all. In a city this large, built on an unruly, informal economy, the lockdown effort was patchwork. Some city blocks were desolate, with the next street over busy with taco stands, roving vendors, and tiny, private business with barricaded doors: Business as normal but with ubiquitous well-worn bottles of hand sanitizer. Cops circulated, but there was little regulation.
The weeks passed and the stress mounted. Cicatriz remained closed. Inside the restaurant, a thin cloak of the city’s breath, a settling of grime normally wiped away by the daily rhythms of the restaurant, covered the tables. We were slowly being buried in a city already sinking. Jake, my brother and business partner, and I biked around the city, delivering bags of coffee, wine, and cookies to people who had ordered via Instagram. Like so many other business owners, we raised money for our staff, shuffled bills, deep-cleaned the restaurant, tried to freeze, ferment, and give away existing produce, applied for grants, cooked for hospital workers, negotiated a rent discount, and counted our dwindling savings.
After three months of lockdown, economy primacy won over public health. The government decided to re-open businesses, the metros, and the public markets while we were hitting new peaks of contagion, day after day. Even with under-reported and massaged numbers, the mortality rate has climbed to 10 percent, the highest among the top 20 most affected countries, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Mexico has one of the lowest rates of COVID testing in the world. The cheapest price of a test that we’ve found is 2,000 pesos, around $100—a monthly wage for many Mexico City residents. The virus has only magnified the socioeconomic divide in Mexico. And with a deep distrust of the government combined with lack of funds to pay for hospital bills, many Mexicans chose to die at home.
On July 1st, the city allowed restaurants to re-open with indoor seating at 30 percent capacity. Cicatriz limped back to life. For the most part, customers are kind and supportive, and wearing a mask here is not nearly as political as it is in the United States. On occasion, however, we toggle between the two extremes: The flippant client that rolls their eyes when asked to put on a mouth cover and other customers that send angry emails about how we are not policing said client adequately. I feel deeply torn. We have to be open to survive, and yet, we can follow all protocols and maintain strict sanitary measures and still not completely ensure the safety of my staff nor my customers. We are grateful to be able to provide some sense of normalcy to the local community, but let’s not forget that dining out is a luxury. At least we have music—turning on the stereo during the month of July was forbidden. It was like eating in a church.
I know how privileged and lucky we are at Cicatriz, and if I had a better disposition, I might view wrenching change as opportunity, but the normalization of death of the most vulnerable (and disproportionately BIPOC) is nothing to glorify. As we slowly drag ourselves towards a new normal, I often hear the phrase “no hay otra manera”—there is no other way. The scrappy entrepreneurialism and the resiliency of the populace forces one foot in front of the other during crisis. To survive, with no government aid, no unemployment benefits, no stimulus package, is remarkable. There is no expectation of help here, but within that void, support comes in the form of community, with friends and family that step in to bolster and reinforce. Durability and adaptation are always a group effort. And there are glimmers of hope: Remembering that history is long and we are very short; getting to put tables outside in the plaza; and learning the shape of our friends’ eyes better than we ever thought we would.