SAN LUIS POTOSÍ, Mexico — Jardín Guerrero, one of the many plazas in San Luis Potosí’s downtown historic district, had the remnants of any warm summer day. The popsicle vendors known as paleteros and fruit sellers seemed to be in every corner, with people gathering around the fountain and towering trees, seeking shade from the warm summer sun.
What was not lost in this backdrop were the cubrebocas — Spanish for masks — which were in the hands or faces of nearly everyone at the plaza, a reminder of Mexico’s continuing battle in containing the novel Coronavirus-19.
Far from the shorelines, San Luis Potosí is known for its Spanish-style cathedrals throughout the city. Located in central Mexico, it's 250 miles northwest of the capital, Mexico City.
It's also one of Mexico's poorest states. According to the University of San Luis Potosí, 37.6 percent of San Luis Potosi’s population lived in poverty in 2010. Of that 1.35 million, 380,000 lived in extreme poverty.
On May 10, the city officially achieved "green light status," the lowest Covid risk status created by Mexico’s federal government, which uses a red, orange, yellow and green system to manage Covid-related restrictions.
The green light allows for educational, labor, economic, and social activity to resume without restrictions. However, under federal guidelines, face masks, proper sanitation, and social distancing continue to be encouraged.
San Luis Potosi’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Fernando Hernandez Maldonado said that since they have been in the green zone, the number of cases has not gone up. "This is happening because the population is engaging in preventative measures," he told NBC News.
According to the Mexican government, San Luis Potosí has had over 5,615 deaths and 64,775 cases of Covid-19.
The handling and containing of Covid-19 containment in Mexico has drawn scrutiny on the accuracy of Mexico’s Health Ministry data, according to locals.
At the start of the pandemic private hospitals were closed in the city to Covid-19 patients, leaving those battling the virus in field hospitals set up by the Mexican Institute of Social Services (IMSS), a government agency that provides social and health services.
Patricia Rodríguez-Díaz, 47, a local school counselor whose work has been remote since the start of the pandemic said, the resources given by the IMSS, which were meant for workers, were not sufficient for providing care,” adding, “on top of this, there wasn’t enough staff to attend to the patients.”
While San Luis Potosí has one of the highest ranked medical facilities in the country, Rodríguez-Diaz described what she believed was a lack of transparency. “You would only hear, by word of mouth, that patients, doctors, nurses started to fall ill and pass away," she said. "There was not even information passed along to families on how their sick relatives were doing.”
Her husband, Jorge Alejandro Beraz, a law professor in the city said there was "no confidence" in the government's reporting of how many people were infected or who passed away.”
He described a social reluctance to question what the government was saying, “to speak in opposition of the government doesn’t sit well, people feel as if they are speaking in opposition to God.”
However, he and others said that while there were questions about how things were handled, "many are happy that things are opening up because San Luis is not a tourist area, and without governmental support, people were in need of financial resources," Beraz said.
Bartender Rachel Solís, 22, of La Piqueria Mezcaleria said her workplace was closed for months during the city’s red-status.
She describes the area in which she lives, located outside of where she works downtown, as pretty poor. She said her neighbors, who did not have any money left and or no longer had work, tried to get assistance the government was giving out but were denied.
Solís said government assistance, “wasn’t well organized because they didn’t focus on the groups that needed the most help."
Gabriela Aranda, 19, and Elsa Almendarez, 18, are students who were learning remotely since the start of the pandemic until June 11, with in-person school ending July 9.
Both said that it wasn't uncommon to find people who did not believe in the pandemic, which contributed to people still going out during the height of the infections.
“They didn’t believe the sickness existed, so they kept going out,” Gabriela said, adding she wished the government “was more strict and that they didn’t let so many people enter the country, which would have helped."
The road to vaccinations
Most residents agree that vaccinations are the route to normalcy.
Mexico has an age-based system to get access to the vaccine. As of now, those 40 and older can register to get vaccinated.
Maldonado said the health department has broken the city into 7 regions, with each getting a logistics coordinator responsible for overseeing distribution of vaccines across communities.
“The journey to store the vaccines and to transport them has become a huge logistical issue," Maldonado said, "but we are here, ready and have our personal ready...we are trying to make it easy for the public to get their vaccine.”
Rosa Pérez, a local Potosina who stayed in the city throughout the pandemic, said the online process was easy for her. “It was easy for me because I got into the application system quickly and took my appointment,” she said. “I left fast, 45-minutes, everything calm.”
While Pérez is fully vaccinated, she believes “you still have to have caution because the virus is still bad. The only reason things are opening is because it is the government’s strategy. I think that’s why. We hope that it is not so. But they [others] have to be careful not to get sick — and get vaccinated.”
The students, Aranda and Almendarez, said that when it's their turn, they plan on getting it.
While Rodríguez-Díaz awaits her turn to be vaccinated, her husband Jorge was fully vaccinated. “As a professor, I was given a one-dose Chinese vaccine," he said. "In San Luis the 50-60 age group was Pfizer, but other locations have been AstraZeneca.”
Not all industries are prioritized. As bartender Rachel Solis awaits her turn, she said the vaccine will allow her family to travel once again. “It allows us to return to our lives. So yeah, all my family and friends are trying to get vaccinated.”
As residents adjust to the more relaxed restrictions, the last year was a time for reflection.
For Solís, the pandemic took her by surprise, but it was also “an opportunity to know myself [herself] more and value things more, like my family — and traveling.”
Her one wish is “that people take care of themselves, because in reality who knows when this will end.”
Maldonado said he learned from seeing who was most susceptible to Covid-19. “I feel like as health workers, we also have to pause and look at our lifestyles in such a way that we diminish our own risks at becoming infected," he said, "especially given that the consequence can be death.”
Rodríguez-Diaz believes the last year was “a great lesson for us all, and continues to be an invitation for us to wake up and become more conscientious.”