Image: Man wearing mask leaves subway
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
Mexico City's hustle and bustle has given way to near empty streets and subways.
updated 4/30/2009 7:41:24 PM ET 2009-04-30T23:41:24

The sound of leaves rustling in the wind replace a cacophony of commuter car horns. The lone bark of a dog echoes from a far-off balcony into the normally bustling restaurant district, suddenly empty of lunchtime crowds and late-night revelers.

Swine flu has also brought an unusual calm to this city that never shuts up. Crime is down and even the smoggy skies have turned a shade approaching blue.

Throughout Mexico City, a megalopolis of 20 million, hustle and bustle has given way to shuffles and sighs.

Mexico has taken drastic steps to prevent the flu's spread: By presidential decree, almost all businesses and government services nationwide will shut for five days starting with the May Day holiday Friday. Only "essential services" such as transportation, supermarkets and hospitals are being kept open. Schools were already closed nationwide.

'Takeout service only'
In the Bohemian Condesa neighborhood, sidewalks usually crowded with diners sharing loud gossip and blowing clouds of cigarette smoke were empty on Thursday. "Takeout service only" signs plastered restaurant doors.

In well-heeled neighborhoods, security guards wearing blue face masks stood outside apartment buildings where tenants were heeding the advice to stay home, avoid crowds, rest up and keep their germs to themselves.

Bike messengers, street cleaners and dog walkers strolled easily along quiet streets, emptied of the exhaust-belching, horn-blowing Hummers, SUVs, moving vans and trucks that normally crowd them.

"Some people are even saying they don't want their pets to go out, because they're afraid they'll catch something," 18-year-old dog walker Carlos Alfredo Rey Zamora said, a face mask dangling from his neck. "There's no traffic anywhere and there is hardly anyone in any of the parks."

In the working-class Mexico-Tacuba neighborhood, broad avenues usually clogged with buses, trucks and taxis were wide open, offering a swift hassle-free ride with unhindered views all around.

Peseros — small, boxy vehicles that normally speed by with 40 passengers squeezed into a space intended for 20 — rumbled by empty in search of fares.

Central plaza deserted
The enormous central plaza, the Zocalo, was deserted. Gone were the usual crowds of drum-pounding "Aztec" dancers with bells on their feet and feathers in their hair, hopping and twisting in circles amid perfumed clouds of incense.

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The Zocalo's imposing Metropolitan Cathedral was free of the usual sightseers and worshippers with their rosary beads. Even the throngs of barefoot beggars who normally sit with their dirty palms outstretched for alms were nowhere to be seen.

Crime in the capital has dropped nearly a third since the swine flu outbreak was made public last week, according to the Attorney General's office, with 280 crimes reported this week compared to 430 the week before. Muggings were down 37 percent as potential victims stayed home, and shoplifting also dropped, with stores closed and customers staying away.

Vendors caught selling face masks
In an ironic twist, the few arrests included vendors caught selling free government-issued face masks to people desperate to avoid germs.

Smog also dropped to levels that tempted city dwellers to run outside and take a gulp of "fresh" air.

"Obviously, the levels of pollution have fallen" because there are a lot less cars on the road, said Jorge Fuentes, spokesman for Mexico City's Atmospheric Monitoring System.

But everything is relative: The system listed Thursday's air quality as "bad" — just not "unbearably bad."

Metropolis not completely shut down
And while in many respects the city felt deserted, asking a throbbing metropolis like Mexico City to completely shut down was out of the question, even in the face of a dangerous flu epidemic.

Along Masaryk Avenue, Mexico City's answer to Rodeo Drive, shops were still open Thursday, selling everything from shiny new BMWs to Louis Vuitton designer purses and Italian-made suits.

In working-class Tacuba, the downscale Waldo's Mart was offering last-minute customers merchandise at its usual "one-low-price," while dozens of shoppers stocked up at the Bodega Aurrera supermarket before hunkering down for the five-day shutdown of all nonessential services starting Friday.

Some die-hard merchants including flower vendors, magazine hawkers and windshield washers, pledged to carry on, even as opportunities dwindled and hours passed without any takers.

But others decided to pack it in. Sixty-two-year-old shoeshine Benito Hernandez, who usually works a street corner next to an ice cream shop from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. decided to call it a day at 3 p.m. — and not reopen for another week.

"I don't have any other option," he said, speaking through a face mask. "There's nothing. There just aren't any people."

Sales drop by a third
Adolfo Perez Garcia, 38, standing behind the counter of his small corner snack stand, said sales of peanuts, potato chips and chocolate bars have dropped by a third since nearby office workers decided to stay home.

"If no one is going to the office, then they're not buying from me and I can't work either," he said with sigh as he peered out over the empty sidewalk.

Still, there were some silver linings.

Zamora, the dog walker said he planned to take advantage of the lull to skip town and spend a few relaxing days with family near the Mexico state capital of Toluca.

Hernandez, who normally gets up at 5:30 a.m. to make his two-hour commute into the city, said he was going to sleep in and spend time with his wife and four children.

And Perez Garcia noted a new tranquility and civility. "Now at least we can walk in the streets — albeit with masks — without slamming into each other," he said.

"We're less vulgar and mean to each other. And we're not telling each other off like we usually do."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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