MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico announced steps Tuesday to jump start an economy punished by the swine flu epidemic. Cinco de Mayo celebrations, however, will have to wait until next year.
Events surrounding the holiday remained canceled even though no deaths have been reported for the last five days and the country prepared to reopen for business.
Mexican Finance Secretary Augustin Carstens, who unveiled plans to stimulate key industries and fight bans on Mexican pork products, said persuading tourists to come back will be a top priority as Mexico tries to "immediately rebuild confidence in our country."
Traffic picked up in the capital, fewer people wore surgical masks and some cafes reopened ahead of time Tuesday, the final day of a nationwide shutdown meant to reduce the spread of virus. Flu experts said the tough measures have helped — but some worried of a potential rebound as crowds gather again.
"The scientists are saying that we really need to evaluate more," said Dr. Ethel Palacios, the deputy director of the swine flu monitoring effort in Mexico. "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."
Tuesday's canceled events included Mexico's largest re-enactment of the May 5, 1862, victory over invading French troops in the central state of Puebla. President Felipe Calderon compared the threats in a speech to the nation Tuesday.
"Almost a century and a half later, Mexico is facing a new threat, this time of a very different kind, an unusual threat, specifically the appearance and spread of an epidemic that has put at risk the lives and health of Mexico's families," Calderon said.
After 26 confirmed deaths, nobody has died from swine flu in Mexico since April 29, giving some confidence to restaurants and other non-essential private businesses that were ordered shut for five days.
Carstens said the outbreak has cost Mexico's economy at least $2.2 billion, and announced a $1.3 billion stimulus package, mostly for small businesses and tourism, the sectors hardest hit by the epidemic. The government will temporarily cut health insurance payments for small businesses and reduce taxes for airlines and cruise ships.
Universities and high schools were being scrubbed down before students return Thursday, and younger schoolchildren are to report back to school May 11 — creating potential pools of contagion that experts worry could make the virus come back.
The schools will reopen even as experts asked restaurants to keep their customers nearly two meters (yards) apart, and Mexico's soccer federation announced that attendance will not be allowed at this weekend's season-ending games.
Calderon called it a return to "normalcy." But flu experts warned that Mexico, like the rest of the world, needs to remain on guard, and said severe cases could surface in the U.S. as well with the virus spreading in a growing number of states.
"We are by no means out of the woods," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC.
The World Health Organization was shipping 2.4 million treatments of antiflu drugs to the 72 countries "most in need." The countries include Mexico, hardest hit by the outbreak. Others include those countries unable to afford stockpiles of the drugs.
As of Tuesday, Mexico had 840 confirmed cases, and U.S. cases grew to at least 487 in 40 states. Despite the increase, U.S. health officials Tuesday stopped recommending that schools close because of suspected cases, saying the virus had turned out to be milder than feared.
Globally, the virus has infected more than 1,592 in 21 countries, according to the World Health Organization and other health bodies. South Korea, Italy and Germany all reported new cases Tuesday. Experts said the known cases were almost certainly only a fraction of the real total.
World health officials have said a pandemic could be declared in the days to come — a reflection of the swine flu's geographic spread, not its severity. Health Secretary Jose Cordova said those infected appeared to pass the virus on to an average of 1.4 other people, near the normal flu rate of around 1.3.
WHO was studying whether to raise the pandemic alert to 6, its highest level, which would mean a global outbreak had begun. WHO uses the term pandemic to refer only to geographic spread and not to the severity of an illness. The two most recent pandemics — in 1957 and 1968 — were relatively mild.
Margaret Chan, WHO director general, said the level will be raised if swine flu is found in another region outside North America, showing very clear evidence of community-level transmission."
The Southern Hemisphere is particularly at risk. While Africa still hasn't reported any swine flu infections and New Zealand is the only country south of the equator with confirmed cases, winter is only weeks away. Experts worry that typical winter flus could combine with swine flu, creating a new strain that is more contagious or dangerous.
"You have this risk of an additional virus that could essentially cause two outbreaks at once," Dr. Jon Andrus said at the Pan American Health Organization's headquarters in Washington.
Still, the U.N. health agency urged governments to avoid unproven actions to contain the disease, including group quarantines of travelers from Mexico and bans on pork imports.
China, Argentina and Cuba are among the nations banning regular flights to and from Mexico, marooning passengers at both ends. Mexico and China both sent chartered flights to each other's countries to collect their citizens, with the chartered Mexican plane hopscotching China Tuesday to retrieve stranded residents. Argentina also chartered a flight to bring Argentines home.
Chinese authorities quarantined Mexicans and other passengers who came in close contact with them, even those who didn't show symptoms. China also changed its visa rules for U.S. citizens, lengthening the processing time to six business days.
The American Embassy in Beijing said Tuesday that four U.S. citizens were quarantined in China. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said two of the Americans were in Beijing and the other pair were in the southern province of Guangdong. She said two of them were released.
About 200 passengers who flew from the United Kingdom to Brunei were under quarantine in a Brunei hospital over swine flu fears Tuesday after three of them showed fever symptoms, an official said Tuesday.