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Marina Cervantes Alemán carries out hygiene and sanitation inspections in a student housing complex near Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the university shut down and students left campus. Workers such as Cervantes keep common areas clean and protect students’ belongings. Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico
Coronavirus

Coronavirus Shuts Mexican Universities, Crippling Nearby Businesses

Mexico

The city of Puebla, known for its vibrant college life, finds its economy wobbling in the wake of a student strike and the coronavirus pandemic. For scores of enterprises, staying afloat in 2020 has been hard – or, in some cases, impossible.

PUEBLA, MEXICO — It’s 2 a.m., and Jorge Vázquez Loya, manager of three student housing complexes near Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, is still working in his kitchen. He reviews contracts, makes expense calculations, and searches social media and websites for tenants.

“It’s the normal work, but now it’s uncertain and stressful,” Vázquez says. “The university’s closed, the students went home, and nobody knows when they’ll be back.”

Vázquez is in charge of hiring gardeners, construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and fumigators. Now all of that has stopped, and he’s worried about losing his job.

Mexico’s colleges and universities shut down when the coronavirus pandemic erupted in late March, and they remain closed. At the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla and other schools, students scattered. And the businesses that depend on them were left without customers.

Those enterprises are now scuffling to survive in a state where these service jobs make up about 61% of the gross domestic product.

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Elsa García Balbuena, a contract psychologist who works in the student services division of Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, visits the university to pick up some materials from her office. She couldn't get in to pick them up.

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

As of July 10, the city of Puebla, capital of the state of Puebla, had 8,670 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 931 deaths.

The city of Puebla, population 1.6 million, is known for its college life, as much of its energy and economic strength depend on the presence of more than 149,000 university students.

Founded in 1587, the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla has a presence all over this city, with two campuses that cover about 274 acres, a hospital and dozens of buildings in the historic district. Its enrollment runs to about 65,000 students.

The main campus, known as Ciudad Universitaria (University City), spreads across 252 acres. Small, independent businesses, some open 24 hours a day, crowd the neighborhoods nearby. They include bakeries and bicycle repair shops, convenience stores and car washes, tamale shops and taquerías, stationery stores and student residences, coffee shops and cybercafes.

Before a student strike and the coronavirus pandemic, food stalls lined the sidewalks. Now those sidewalks are empty, shops are closed, and many signs advertise premises for rent.

Students were the lifeblood of businesses such as Damián Viña Romo’s 15-year-old restaurant, Sabor y Sazón, two blocks from Ciudad Universitaria. It has been a tough year for Viña and his eatery. First, business faltered in late February after the murders of three medical students. In the wake of the killings, students from universities all over the city went on strike. Then came the coronavirus.

“It wasn’t just the coronavirus,” Viña says. “Businesses have been barely getting by since the end of February, in situations that nobody could have imagined.”

Vázquez says after the murders and the strike, he too saw business decline, as some students left their apartments and never returned. Vázquez has managed the student housing units for six years. He now receives half of his salary and does maintenance work at the complexes at no extra charge.

His boss thinks the company may go bankrupt, but Vázquez hopes to stay at least until students return. “When students arrive, business will pick up,’’ he says. “The challenge is to hold on and keep operating.”

Avelina Corona Chávez, who runs a laundromat, says the lack of students has dried up business so much that she may shut down, at least temporarily.

Corona has slashed her one employee’s salary, sometimes paying her half, sometimes two-thirds. But the employee, Sandra Salmerón Vélez, does not plan to leave. “I know my boss is having a hard time too,” she says.

The shutdown also impacts workers affiliated with the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. Elsa García Balbuena, a contract psychologist in the school’s student services division since 2013, hopes to return to her job soon, but rumors of impending budget cuts worry her. She expects to hear from the university any day now.

“I want to go back to work. Many students are looking for me,” García says. “They need emotional support. They don’t know what to do.”

Lisbeth Miranda Palacios’ school-supply business has been closed since the strike. She is optimistic that the university will reopen soon because it is vital to the image and overall well-being of the city of Puebla. For now she lives on her savings.

In April, Carmen Mireya Calderón, head of the city’s Ministry of Economic Development, announced that the government plans to provide support for 1,000 local micro-entrepreneurs, with a total investment of 10 million Mexican pesos ($441,875).

In the historic district, the ministry will invest 5 million pesos ($220,938) in some 500 businesses, allowing them to address some of their fixed operating costs. Those payments were scheduled to start on June 1 but were delayed.

Uncertain as to when the university will reopen, businesses and employees plan for the worst. Corona hopes to broaden the laundromat’s customer base beyond students and expand its services. Vázquez may start his own business helping social entrepreneurs build their networks. Viña closed his restaurant.

Short, serious and shy, Viña was a ball of energy at his eatery, serving meals with joy and pride. He still rises as if Sabor y Sazón were open, out of bed each day by 4:30 a.m.

He says he constantly thinks about how to find better ingredients for meals on a menu that no longer exists.

Viña does not plan to seek help from the government because he doesn’t want the scrutiny. “If it is the will of God,” he says, “I am going to rise again.’’

Viña, 50, does not know what to do next, he says. He is depressed. He may take a job stocking shelves in a grocery store.

He misses the students’ stories and their laughter. “If you only knew how many love stories I saw blossoming in front of my plates,” he says.

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