MEXICO CITY — Packed street markets. Buzzing metro stations. Thronged sidewalks. And noticeably fewer people wearing masks.
Mexico is starting to bustle again as the country gradually reopens after a quarantine that hammered its economy. But many Mexicans, including medical experts, are worried the move has come too early, and will lead to more illness and death under a pandemic that has not been brought under control in Mexico and is surging across Latin America.
“Most people think from the government’s message that the worst is over,” said Dr. Francisco Moreno, who heads the Covid unit of ABC Medical Center, one of Mexico City’s top private hospitals.
“We are at the peak of the epidemic,” he added, explaining that the center is so full it has had to turn patients away, despite doubling its capacity in recent weeks.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has struggled to balance a response to the coronavirus with the economic needs of a country in which over half of the population lives hand-to-mouth, working informal jobs, without a safety net.
Early on, Mr. López Obrador played down the severity of the coronavirus’ threat, allowing soccer tournaments, concerts and preparations for the busy spring tourist season to continue even as neighboring countries shut down.
Once cases started to climb, in late March, a lockdown went into effect, but by April the president had declared the disease under control.
An analysis by The New York Times, however, later found that the Mexican government was not reporting the virus’s true toll.
This week, Mr. López Obrador marked the end of the quarantine by embarking on a six-state tour.
“We have to head toward the new normality because the national economy and the well-being of the people depends on it,“ he said during a stop in Cancún. “We need to little by little normalize social, economic and cultural activities. I repeat, carefully.”
Mexico’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, emphasized that the opening was gradual, limited to virus-free communities, the mining, construction and auto industries, and thousands of select businesses.
But the relaxation of restrictions comes at a moment when the disease appears to be peaking. On Wednesday, Mexico reported 1,092 deaths, its highest daily toll to date, though the López Obrador administration said the increase was caused by an administrative delay in reporting deaths. By Thursday, the total number of dead in the country was 12,545.
Experts warn the move to reopen could intensify the disease’s grip on the country.
A report released on May 12 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected that Mexico could suffer up to 16,795 Covid-19 deaths by early August.
Dr. Rafael Lozano, one of the authors of the report, now says that prognosis is being revised for an expected spike in cases following the relaxation of restrictions, and could reach 43,000 to 51,000 deaths by the end of summer.
“It’s a very difficult prognosis, and it’s still growing,” Dr. Lozano said.
With many hospitals around Mexico City operating at full capacity, health officials questioned the system’s ability to keep working at this pace indefinitely.
“I’m concerned about burnout,” Dr. Moreno said. “The critical care nurses, the doctors, everybody is getting tired, and some people get sick because they are tired and don’t follow the protocol very well.”
Mexico’s front-line health care workers have been falling sick with Covid-19 at some of the highest rates in the world, with grave consequences for themselves and their patients.
Many local governments pushed back on the call to reopen, saying they felt safer waiting. In Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor, said residents were still required to wear masks in public and announced the city would increase testing for Covid-19, including people who are asymptomatic.
Many Mexican officials fear that Mr. López Obrador’s message that the country should reopen with caution will be lost on the majority of a population eager to rush back to work.
Juan Hugo de la Rosa, the mayor of Nezahualcóyotl, a poor, densely populated suburb that’s been hard hit by the epidemic, said the movement of people in the streets has increased substantially since the easing of restrictions on June 1.
He would have preferred to delay reopening until after the peak of contagion, even if it meant more economic pain in the short term, he said.
“This situation will without a doubt prolong the duration of the epidemic and badly affect the economy of the families who live here,” said Mr. De la Rosa, who said most of the city’s 1.2 million residents worked informal jobs.
Juana Parada Flores, an Indigenous Mazahua who sells school supplies in a crowded Mexico City market, and who said her father died of Covid-19, called the return to normality “illogical.”
“It will just make the epidemic worse,” she said. “Because we’re all going to leave like crazy, out of necessity.”