For the last 15 years, my husband Barry and I have lived two-thirds of the year in Eureka, on California’s North Coast, and the other third in Guanajuato, Mexico. This year we returned to Eureka in March, at the onset of COVID-19, and flew back to Guanajuato in mid-November. Here, I report on the measures underway to prevent the pandemic in both communities.
Eureka, Humboldt County, California
Eureka, the largest town in rural Humboldt County, has a population of about 30,000. Compared to many parts of the U.S., it was not a bad place to endure the pandemic because of the natural beauty in the area. Although the nearby national and state parks were closed from time to time, the mountains, bays, rivers, and beaches remained easily accessible. Barry and I felt very fortunate that we were allowed to take trips in our campervan.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, supermarkets offered an exclusive “senior hour” where door monitors allowed shoppers over 60 to enter at socially distanced intervals. No one was allowed to bring their own bags (now we are).
For most of the year, the county remained at a very low level of infection risk, but as of November 30, it is now at the highest level California has: purple, or Tier 1, which indicates that the virus is widespread, with more than seven cases per 100,000 residents. Because the county is now in Tier 1, restaurants will be limited to outdoor and takeout services during the chilly, wet winter.
In Eureka, some people wear masks outside, but not all. Because it’s not a crowded town and it has wide sidewalks, I didn’t feel unsafe if I passed someone without a mask from a distance, and in fact didn’t always wear a mask, either, though I always had one handy and put it on whenever approaching someone. According to the Cleveland Clinic and many other health sources, masks are more important inside, when socializing outside your bubble.
Guanajuato City, Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, the capital of the state with the same name, is a densely populated city of 180,000, although it feels much smaller because it is so dense. The city is built in a steep, narrow valley, with the tightly wedged, crowded downtown area, el centro, at the bottom. Alleys, or callejones, where residents live, wind up the hills almost vertically from the town plaza, the Jardin de la Union. These pedestrian alleys are narrow but less crowded than the streets at the valley floor.
Mexico has a four-color COVID matrix ranging from green (reasonably safe) to yellow (limited activities permitted) to orange (staying home urged) to red (all but essential activities prohibited). In Guanajuato, the city jumped from yellow to orange not long after the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, when Mexican tourists flocked to the city.
7 Helpful Measures Being Used In Guanajuato:
At the entrance of many shops, customers are given sanitizer drops, a strategy recommended by the CDC.
2. Hand-Washing Stations
Places where you can wash your hands are dotted around town, a strategy which WHO, the World Health Organization, supports because hand-washing helps reduce not only COVID-19, but many other infections.
3. Signs Encouraging Mask Use
All over town, signs encourage the use of cubrebocas (masks), with small print at the bottom saying that it's obligatorio to wear them. Most people comply, even though it is not enforced. I wear a mask almost always when walking in Mexico, partly for health reasons, because the city is dense and its sidewalks narrow. But I also wear a mask for social reasons, to reinforce the practice and because I don’t want to stand out as a gringa flouting authority and showing disrespect.
Unfortunately, around 25 percent of the people I see wear their masks below the nostrils. Research shows that the nose is a key entry point for the virus. One potential reason why they do is that the word for “mask” in Spanish, cubreboca, broken down, means “cover mouth.”
4. Reduced Capacity
Most restaurants and cafes have reduced capacity and use apps rather than menus.
5. Blocked Off Benches And Church Pews
Police block off benches with tape, while pews in churches have a big “X” where churchgoers are not allowed to sit.
6. Traffic Diversion And Park Closures
On the main commercial street in town, Avenida Juarez, traffic is limited to buses and taxis, reducing congestion and giving pedestrians more elbow room.And depending on the current COVID-19 danger zone, some parks are closed.
7. Cancelation Of Many Holiday Festivities
December is a busy time in Guanajuato because of the Christmas season, with its masses, concerts, and processions. But December 12, el Dia de la Virgen, is an even more important day because it’s when the faithful celebrate the birth of their patron saint, Guadalupe. The day is one of the most crowded celebrations of the year, with hundreds of people visiting the Guadalupe church, some arriving on their knees, and vendors outside selling snacks and knick-knacks. The priest of one of the main churches in town recently announced, ”Due to the increase in COVID contagion, this year we must make the pilgrimage in our hearts.”
The Christmas masses, which take place at midnight on December 24, can only be at thirty percent capacity, and these may also be canceled if Guanajuato enters the red zone. This could easily happen since Mexican tourists love to visit Guanajuato, where the Mexican revolution began, and the city has done little to discourage tourism. The city is also not curtailing the mariachi bands that sing to tourists in the Jardin de la Union, nor the estudiantinas, madrigal singers that take tourists on singing tours of el centro. Loud, lusty singing can transmit the virus, though at least both groups sing outside.
So Is It Safe To Travel To Mexico?
Despite the preventive measures, the numbers tell the real story, and cases are rising. At the time of writing, Guanajuato had fewer COVID cases than Humboldt County, but Mexico’s health statistics are notoriously underreported. As my recent article describes, it’s probably safe to fly to Mexico, but whether it’s safe once you’re here depends. Barry and I feel comfortable here because we own a home here, so we can have groceries delivered, cook, and avoid restaurants. We're intimately familiar with our town and know how to avoid busy areas. Yesterday, we took a three-hour hike, and the only living creatures we passed were some horses.
For tourists, it’s a different story. Inevitably you’ll come in contact with people in the hospitality industry, taxi drivers, and so on. You’re just that much more likely to be exposed. And if you’re unlucky and contract COVID, you're far safer in the U.S. than in Mexico -- and especially in a Mexican hospital, according to Latin America-focused political analyst Nathaniel Parish Flannery.
Though I love Mexico and the Mexican people, I wouldn’t travel here if I didn’t already have a base. As we say in Spanish, cuidate (take care), stay home, and look forward to a visit hopefully later next year.
Editor's Note: For the latest on travel and safety during the pandemic, see our COVID-19 category.