Dozens of Mexican nationals who were quarantined at hospitals and hotels in China despite showing no symptoms of swine flu headed home early Wednesday on a government-chartered jet.
Scheduled to land before sunrise, the travelers are returning to a capital that has begun emerging from a government-ordered lockdown designed to contain the spread of the virus that has caused 31 deaths in Mexico and the U.S. and sickened nearly 1,900 in 21 countries.
On Tuesday, a day before stores, restaurants and factories were officially being allowed to reopen, Mexico City started to show its usual ebullience. Thousands of newspaper vendors, salesmen hawking trinkets and even panhandlers dropped their protective masks and joined the familiar din of traffic horns and blaring music. Some shops opened early.
There were still signs, however, of the virus that has set off world health alarms. A Texas woman who lived near a popular border crossing was confirmed as the first U.S. resident and the second person outside Mexico to die after contracting swine flu. Mexico's Health Department announced three more confirmed deaths, raising the country's total to 29.
Businesses to Reopen
Across Mexico, people eagerly anticipated this week's reopening of businesses, restaurants, parks and some schools after a claustrophobic five-day furlough.
"We have a lot of confidence nothing is going to happen," said Irineo Moreno Gonzales, 54, a security guard who limited takeout customers to four at a time at a usually crowded downtown Starbucks on Tuesday. "Mexicans have the same spirit we've always had. We're ready to move forward."
The Texas woman, the second confirmed person to die with swine flu in the U.S., lived not far from the Mexico border and had chronic medical conditions, as did the Mexico City toddler who died of swine flu last week during a visit to Houston, Texas, health officials said.
The 33-year-old woman was pregnant and delivered a healthy baby while hospitalized, said Leonel Lopez, Cameron County epidemiologist. She was a teacher in the Mercedes Independent School District, which announced it would close its schools until Monday.
Mexico's government imposed the five-day shutdown to curb the flu's spread, especially in this metropolis of 20 million where the outbreak sickened the most people. Capital residents overwhelmingly complied - other towns less - and officials cautiously hailed the drastic experiment as a success.
Still, many more pedestrians were out Tuesday, the shutdown's final day. Many wore protective masks, but many didn't, as they dodged the familiar green-and-white VW taxis cruising for fares and noisy trucks bearing bottled water.
Some officials cautioned against a rush back toward normalcy.
"The scientists are saying that we really need to evaluate more," said Dr. Ethel Palacios, deputy director of the swine flu monitoring effort in Mexico City. "In terms of how the virus is going to behave, we are keeping every possibility in mind.. We can't make a prediction of what's going to happen."
But Palacios said it is a delicate process trying to balance the public's health and its economic welfare. "One of most the important things is that you need to know that these measures do have an impact not only on health but also on other aspects of life and society," she said.
Swine flu has now sickened nearly 1,900 people in 21 countries, including 651 in the United States. The World Health Organization said it was shipping 2.4 million treatments of anti-flu drugs to 72 countries "most in need," and France sent 100,000 doses worth $1.7 million to Mexico.
Mexican Finance Secretary Agustin Carstens unveiled plans Tuesday to stimulate key industries and fight foreign bans on Mexican pork products. He said persuading tourists to come back is a top priority.
Carstens said the outbreak cost Mexico's economy at least $2.2 billion, and he announced a $1.3 billion stimulus package, mostly for tourism and small businesses, the sectors hardest hit by the epidemic. Mexico will temporarily reduce taxes for airlines and cruise ships and cut health insurance payments for small businesses.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he will ask governments to reverse trade and travel restrictions lacking a clear scientific basis.
China Quarantine Policy
Mexico objected strenuously to China's quarantine policy, which also ensnared travelers from the U.S. and Canada, calling it unfair and discriminatory. Beijing defended its efforts to keep swine flu out of the world's most populous nation, saying it will continue to impose strict medical examinations and checks on travelers from regions with the illness.
China said it would lift a swine flu quarantine for a group of Canadian students two days early, following pressure from the Canadian government. But Lin Ji, deputy director of the general office of the Jilin provincial health department, said it would continue its strident checks on travelers from swine flu-hit regions.
The group of 25 students and a professor from a Canadian university had been under observation at a hotel in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun since the weekend but were to be released Wednesday instead of Friday because they were healthy, Ji said.
Besides the more than 70 Mexican nationals flying home from China, about 20 Chinese businessmen and students, each wearing surgical masks, left the Mexican border city of Tijuana on Tuesday on a Chinese government flight after being stranded when China canceled all direct flights to Mexico.
Dr. David Nabarro, senior U.N. coordinator for influenza, said countries must explain to WHO their rationale for such measures - and that their effectiveness is likely minimal at best.
"We want to be very clear that the World Health Organization is not recommending travel restrictions related to the outbreak of this novel influenza," Nabarro said.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson, James Anderson and Katherine Corcoran contributed to this report.
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