Mexico US border The Tijuana and San Diego border is the world's busiest land border crossing. The coronavirus restrictions prohibit all non-essential travel across the border.
Image via AP/Damian Dovarganes

The coronavirus outbreak has created a scenario of shut borders and colliding public health policies that have a heavy impact on border residents’ lives.

On March 20, Trump announced strict border restrictions for “nonessential travel” effective the first hour of March 21. The announcement made thousands of people run toward the San Ysidro Port of Entry to cross the San Diego-Tijuana border, for what felt like one last time.

Many of the estimated 200,000 Americans living in Baja California, packed their bags in a haze and headed for the crossing point. Tropes of annoying spring breakers took early flights out of Los Cabos.

In those last hours of “normal travel,” border wait lines extended for miles as many Tijuana residents ran to fill their gas tanks with cheap gas, get vitamins, food and beauty supplies — they sometimes resell them as a way of making a living. Others went to get money out of their U.S. bank account, to cash their paychecks or get Amazon packages out of their P.O. Boxes. The exchange rate for US dollars slowly rising.

Tijuana’s bariatric surgeons and dentists quickly offered “doctors orders” letters for travel to their mostly U.S. clientele, in the hopes they would still have their scheduled gastric bypass or root canals. Cancellations kept pouring in. The economic consequences in the medical tourism industry and the city started to be felt.

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This border has always been a buzzing place, the busiest land port of entry and one of the most dissimilar in the world. It is a $230 billion economic engine with over 5 million residents in the area. There are strong biotech, pharmaceutical and medical, aerospace and defense clusters in San Diego that rely on over 600 export manufacturing plants in Tijuana. Every year, $42 billion dollars worth of goods are imported and exported. That is $2.1 million every day.

The dynamic is like having New York City just a bridge and a checkpoint away from Charlotte, North Carolina. With the strange possibility of getting a New York salary and spending it “back home.”

Daily life, school, and businesses are intertwined by 111 million border crossings a year at the San Diego Ports of Entry. This is a higher number of trips than passengers going through Atlanta, Beijing, LAX, Dubai or Tokyo Airports that same year. 

It is estimated that 90,000 northbound trips a day are just from people going for work and school. Before Trump’s order, the number of trips had been going down because of school closures and many companies asking workers to work from home. Until now, the border had not been closed off like this for more than a week. Not even after Sept. 11.

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The answers to the Coronavirus outbreak are just as dissimilar as these two cities, and the lasting results in border life remain to be seen. While San Diego streets are currently empty, with many places closed and deserted after the Shelter in Place order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Tijuana streets buzz with street vendors, some people haphazardly wearing face masks and families enjoying time off at the beach, with only some of its residents avoiding crowded public spaces.

This dissonance comes from a very risky move made by the Mexican government, one that mimics the route taken by Nicaragua: no travel restrictions, no closed borders, no shelter in place orders. The promotion of some social distancing -with a social campaign with a cartoon heroine called Susana Distancia-, but not halting commerce, work, or making restaurants and cafes close their doors.

Only 10% of suspected cases are being tested for confirmation, therefore keeping confirmation numbers low in comparison with other countries. As of March 30, there are 603 confirmed cases in San Diego including 7 deaths. Tijuana only has 10 confirmed cases and no deaths. The difference in testing makes it hard to compare data.

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The theory behind this approach is that Mexico’s economy is fragile, 60% of workers are informal and a blow to their shallow pockets can be deadlier than the disease itself.  Human Rights Watch has denounced the Mexican President for hugging and kissing people in public in defiance of public health officials orders: showing religious images he keeps on his wallet and calling them “my shields” and other charismatic leader moves.

The life at the Tijuana San Diego border is more dystopian than ever, with empty San Diego freeways now leading to buzzing Tijuana streets, and the two realities barely strung together by a huge metal wall.