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Flu scare drives Mexico City residents indoors

With no schools, no movie theaters and no cafes to while away the hours because of the swine flu scare, many of Mexico City's 20 million residents are going stir crazy.
Image: Swine flu, shut-ins
Cecilia Lopez, left, and her sister Angelica have breakfast at their home in Mexico City on Tuesday. The girls haven't been allowed to leave their family's house for several days because of the swine flu outbreak.Miguel Tovar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nine-year-old Cecilia Ines Lopez has been watching nine hours of television a day. Her 16-year-old aunt has spent so much time on Instant Messenger she complains she has nothing more to say.

For five long days, the only glimpse the girls have caught of their normally bustling neighborhood has been through the barred windows of their cramped cinderblock row house. Their parents — like many across Mexico City — grounded them when swine flu hit.

"We're like caged lions," Cecilia's grandmother, Constancia Sosa, said Tuesday in the family's tiny living room decorated with ornately carved wooden couches, religious statues, family photos and fake flowers.

"We sit in here all day, listen to the news about how bad things are. One more week of this and we're going to fall into a serious depression — or become hysterical."

This city of 20 million people has shut itself in as authorities try to prevent the epidemic from spreading. But with no schools, no movie theaters and no cafes to while away the hours, many are already going stir crazy.

On Tuesday, officials banned Mexico City's 25,000 restaurants from serving customers — takeout is still OK — and closed gyms, swimming pools and pool halls. Already, nightclubs, museums, zoos and movie theaters had been off-limits. And schools have been closed nationwide until at least May 6.

For the six-member Lopez family, their 13-foot-by-13-foot home in a working-class neighborhood has become a bunker. Life has been reduced to painful stretches of boredom and irritation, shattered by bouts of anxiety.

Sosa, 52, has had it with her daughter Ilse. Since school closed, the 16-year-old has been practicing her Mexican folk dances — with plenty of foot-stomping — in the living room. She also spends her time talking on the phone or instant-messaging friends — and is sick of both.

Sosa is also fed up with Cecilia and her 10-year-old sister, who race up and down the stairs as they search for activities to keep themselves occupied. They can't leave the house — only Cecilia's father forays out to work, and to pick up food and surgical masks.

Cecilia said it isn't her fault: "I sit here. I go upstairs to see what there is to play with. I get bored. I come down here to see what they're doing. And then I go to sleep."

"Yesterday we watched nine hours of TV," she said, rolling her eyes and slouching into her chair in exasperation.

Empty market
Outside, the overcrowded city has become almost spacious. Traffic flows easily down broad avenues and normally crowded squares are crisscrossed by the occasional pedestrian.

Even one of the city's main produce market, La Merced, has emptied. Normally, thousands of sweaty bodies jostle against one another among the towering mounds of jalapenos, mangos and squash blossoms. On Tuesday there was hardly a soul, save produce sellers and the occasional health worker taping up posters warning people to steer clear of crowds.

"I'm more scared about the drop in sales than the illness," said Jaime Blas, 50, trying to sell pecans and pumpkin seeds with a surgical mask covering his face. "How are we going to eat?"

Avocado seller Rodrigo Antonio Rebollo, 39, said he has no money for milk, so his three children are getting by on beans and coffee — plus some handouts from colleagues who give him produce about to rot.

"A lot of my clients are taco sellers and they're not working either because they also don't have customers," he said.

Few people were eating out already, and on Tuesday the government ordered all restaurants to stop serving sit-down meals because people could catch the flu from the next table.

Augustina Alvarez Cervantes, 55, said the owner of the Mexican restaurant where she waits tables called and told her to shut down until further notice. She was stacking tables and emptying the refrigerator of food that might go bad, and worrying about how she would feed her two daughters and infant grandchild.

"We're left without a paycheck," she said, "but we still have expenses."

Wealthier parents had more options, but their kids were equally restless. Pediatrician Joaquina Lorente has stayed home to field calls from panicked parents as her three little girls quarrel and whine around her.

Lorente, 39, is grateful she has a garden with a swing set. But her children play "school," longing for the day when they can return to classes.

"They're watching a lot of TV," Lorente said. "I used to limit TV but that seems so minor now compared to what we're facing."