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Adventures in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

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Posts Tagged ‘swine flu’

A Trip to the Beach and Some Thoughts on The Swine Flu Hysteria

Posted by Tony & Cheri on May 21, 2009

Finally, A Day Off
After a couple weeks of craziness we decided to go to the beach. We had been working overtime not only running the hotel and bar, but also spending a lot of time answering e-mails and responding to internet postings to reassure as many people as possible that: no, there was no swine flu in Playa; no, the travel warnings were no longer in effect; no, they would not face quarantine at either end of their journey; and no, if they came to Playa they would not selfishly be endangering their family and friends with some sort of incurable plague. We needed some down time, and a day on the shore of the Caribbean was just what we needed.

We decided to go to one of our regular hangouts, La Playa Beach Club at Xpu-ha. We headed out early in the morning, dropped our MSD (Mexican Street Dog) Gypsy off at Dog Holiday, the local doggie daycare facility, and headed down the coast for the twenty minute drive to La Playa. When we got there we found it…empty. We don’t mean not crowded, we mean totally empty. Every bar swing, every cafe table, every lounge chair sat empty. For the length of the pristine tropical beach in either direction there was not a soul to be seen. Fishing and dive boats floated untended on anchors or pulled up onto the beach.

A Deserted Beach
It could not have been a more perfect day. The air and the sea were warm. The surface of the Caribbean was like glass. It was completely still with only the slight gentle movement of small waves. At one point a few large clouds dotted the sky, but they passed through without stopping or dropping any rain. We took our pick of the palapas, chose some beach chairs, dropped our stuff and ran in to the ocean to float our cares away. Eventually about five other people wandered in to the beach club (it probably holds 100+) so we basically had the place to ourselves for the day. Of course the guys who work there were thrilled to see us. Normally there are several waiters, bartenders, cooks etc. working the club. On this day they had two waiters and a cook. We had constant attention and received our nachos and Pina Coladas (one with, one without) in record time.

Normally finding a deserted beach is a fun time for us. We are always exploring, trying to find a little part of paradise away from the crowds where we can relax in silence and peace. But this was different. While we enjoyed the quiet, we couldn’t help but see beyond the empty beach. We knew the empty tables and chairs meant someone was without a job and some family was trying to figure out how to survive, so we thought we’d better do our part to contribute to the local economy. And we talked about why and how this happened.

The Panic: How it Started
Lets start at the beginning. When swine flu first appeared in Mexico City the World Health organization (WHO) set into motion its new pandemic point system for tracking and evaluating the new virus. Unfortunately many people, including the media, didn’t see it as the administrative/preventative tool it was, but mistakenly viewed the term “pandemic” as if it meant “plague.” At the same time the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began to release figures which seemed to show a much larger spread of the infection and resulting deaths than actually happened. The reason for this is that the CDC viewed ANY influenza, pneumonia-based illness or death as being “suspected of being swine flu related.” The perception began that Mexico was a biological hot zone of a deadly new disease. [UPDATE MAY 23, 2009: THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION ANNOUNCED THAT IT WOULD BE REVAMPING ITS PANDEMIC SCALE IN AN ATTEMPT TO AVOID THE TYPE OF PANIC IN THE FUTURE THAT WAS CAUSED IN THE RECENT SWINE FLU SCARE. READ THE FULL STORY. In our opinion, this is a step in the right direction.]

This idea that Mexico was a dangerous place to visit gained favor when the CDC acting director Richard E. Bessler continually warned that “deaths should be expected.” Unfortunately Dr. Bessler didn’t say whether he expected deaths in the range of the normal human based influenza we see in North America each year (approx. 35,000 deaths in the US each year) or the range of annual gun deaths in the US (31,000 by CDC records for the last year tallied being 2005) or in the range of people killed by drunk drivers (approx 13,000 in 2007 according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving). He simply made this ominous prediction, and repeated it for the cameras on more than one occasion. He made this statement without qualification, leading the public to suppose he meant something catastrophic and previously unseen was about to happen.

Mexico Becomes Off Limits
The CDC then made things worse by warning people not to travel to Mexico. Certainly warning people to avoid areas where the infection had been identified made sense in the earliest days of the disease. However the travel ban seemed to have more to do with politics than medicine. The CDC warned against travel anywhere in Mexico, including areas where the swine flu had not been found, like the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet when swine flu became widespread throughout the United States, no travel warning or advisory was suggested for travel to areas of high flu concentration in the continental US. And when the Euopean Union suggested its citizens not travel to the America, the US governement deemed the warning “unnecessary.”

By now the media was in full panic mode. NBC’s Chief Science and Health Correspondent Robert Bazell offered a perfect example of this hysterical reporting when he appeared on MSNBC’s news program “Hardball” and said that the swine flu had “spread all through the country” (of Mexico) when in fact it was limited to Mexico City. He also said that there had been 150 deaths so far in Mexico (there had been 19 confirmed swine flu deaths according to WHO at that time). And he characterized level six of WHO’s Pandemic scale as “Forget about it…all is lost.” In fact level six simply sets out a global coordinated response to a spreading illness. It does not refer to the danger, mortality rate or effects of any particular illness.

The general public, not knowing what or who to believe, went a little crazy. Internet forums, even those frequented by seasoned travelers to Mexico, were overwhelmed with people not only expressing fear, but attacking and denigrating anyone who suggested caution. As a result, the tourism trade in all of Mexico, even in Playa Del Carmen where not a single case of Swine Flu was ever reported, plummeted overnight.

The Aftermath
Now the storm has passed. The swine flu turned out to be less dangerous than the regular human flu. Soon it spread, as flu bugs do, through the US and Europe without mass deaths or social disruption. Life went back to normal. Of course the health officials who warned that all of humanity was at danger suddenly stopped giving press conferences. Cable news shows quietly reported the lifting of travel warnings and moved on to the latest “hot button” story. The self-appointed guardians of the internet suddenly stopped posting their cries to isolate Mexico. In the end, the “Chicken Littles” faded away without apologies or acknowledgment of their part in causing the hysteria.

However, poor Mexico is now left to pick up the pieces. The government of Mexico is doing its part, offering tax breaks and small business loans. But in the short term many businesses may fail and many people have already lost their jobs. Here in Playa everyone we talk to is trying to hold on, hoping the summer season will see the return of visitors. In the meantime, some places are reducing their staffs and limiting their operating hours. But in the end, Playa is holding on, still offering a place to get away from the pressures of everyday life. We are telling everyone who will listen that our little slice of paradise hasn’t gone anywhere. The beaches, the blue sea, the funky bars and world class restaurants are still here. A little less crowded, maybe, but that’s not a bad thing for someone coming on a vacation.

As for ourselves, we are planning for a quiet summer that will allow us a chance to enjoy our “Margaritaville” lifestyle a little more than usual. We are planning to spend alot of time near, on, in and under the water. If you would like to join us, now is a great time.

By the way, in answer to the question many people are asking, no, we haven’t heard from Jimmy Buffett yet. Anybody have Kenny Chesney’s number?

And here are a few more pictures from the day:

Empty fishing boats

Papa T on the beach

Nobody in the water but Cheri

How many colors of blue can you count?

Cheri wondering where Kenny Chesney is

Posted in Activities, Living the Dream, News & Politics, The Love of Travel, What's New | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Playa is Open for Business…Still No Flu in Sight

Posted by Tony & Cheri on May 1, 2009

The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of activity in Playa del Carmen. Rumors have run rampant here and on the internet and have covered the gamut of possibilities. Some of the rumors had all of the businesses on Fifth Avenue being shut down, others had bars being closed, and some had the entire city–including government offices and private businesses–being shuttered for the next week. As a result, we were inundated by inquiries by telephone and email asking whether it was true that Playa was now a ghost town, closed down because of the swine flu. The answer is a resounding NO. NOT NOW, NOT NEXT WEEK.

We’ve said it before and we’re going to say it one more time: THERE HAVE BEEN NO REPORTED CASES OF SWINE FLU IN PLAYA DEL CARMEN, THE STATE OF QUINTANA ROO, OR EVEN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA. While the government is taking rational and reasonable steps to prevent any outbreak of H1N1 (swine) flu, life continues to go on in this beautiful Caribbean town as it does every spring. There are tourists in the streets, the restaurants and bars are open, and the beaches are full of vacationers.

Once again, we want to make the point that we understand people’s concerns during this medical situation. We’re sympathetic when people say they don’t want to travel to any place in Mexico because of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico City. Our response is pretty simple: are you traveling in the United States? There are now more reported swine flu cases in the US over a greater geographical area than there are in Mexico. Yet the Centers for Disease Control still advises avoiding nonessential travel to any part of Mexico, even those where the outbreak has never touched. Yet they offer no advisories against travel between states where there are swine flu cases confirmed. We think the reason for this has more to do with politics than health concerns. But regardless, we still stand by what the World Health Organization is saying: that travel restrictions will not affect the spread of this disease. So we are telling anyone who asks that Playa is indeed open for business, free of any sign of the swine flu and that people should ignore the rumors.

To make the point that it is business as usual in Playa, we contacted government officials, ecoparks, local restaurants, beach clubs, and stores to confirm what was open and what was not. Here’s what we found:

ECOPARKS – Xcaret and Xel-Ha are open, despite rumors to the contrary.

SUPERMARKETS – Walmart, Mega, Sam’s, Chedraui, San Francisco, etc. are all open.

RESTAURANTS – Walking 5th Avenue we’ve seen no restaurants closed. The same is true for the rest of Playa. All of our favorites are open, including Babe’s, Antica, El Fogon, HC de Monterrey and La Pesca. We didn’t see a single restaurant closed.

BANKS – All of them are open. They will close tomorrow for the national holiday of Labor Day but will be open again on Saturday and/or Monday, depending on the specific bank’s normal banking days.

BARS – All bars are open, including the world-famous Luna Blue Bar. 🙂 And don’t forget, if you are going to be in Playa del Carmen on May 5, we’re having the biggest, the best and probably the only CINCO DE MAYO PARTY in town. Live music, Tony’s cheeseburgers, girls in bikinis and Lenny the Wonder Dog. Please stop by and say hello.

BEACH CLUBS – In North Beach we went down to check and saw that Mamita’s, Kool and Blucacao were all open and operating with normal capacity crowds. We checked with our friend Jez who runs Zenzi Beach Club in central Playa and he tells us they were full and the rest of the beach was open with normal business.

NIGHT CLUBS – The clubs that have been closed temporarily are those with the capacity of over 1,000. This includes Dubai, Coco Bongo and Mambo Cafe. Santanera’s indoor facility has been temporarily closed, but its beautiful outdoor terrace is open for business. Other clubs are open for business as usual.

TOURS – All of our tour operators are open and operating. We have heard of no closures.

Government offices will be closed tomorrow for the national holiday. Schools will remain closed through next Wednesday. The archaeological zones (Tulum, Cobá and Chichen Itza, etc.) will be closed until further notice.

The point of all of this is to reassure people that if they are coming to Playa del Carmen, they will find the resort facilities and businesses open and welcoming. And you won’t be alone if you do come. While we certainly have had some cancellations, we have also had a lot of reservations. A number of guests with existing reservations have emailed us to tell us of their intention to keep them. And, regarding the CDC’s suggestion that non-essential travel to Mexico be avoided, one person emailed us with the comment that his upcoming vacation was “essential” to his sanity. 🙂

Of course, we are hearing from people that they are afraid to come based upon the continuing reports in the news media. We’re puzzled by the fact that Mexico alone is singled out as a place to avoid, rather than New York, California, Canada, and numerous other cities, states and countries where this flu has surfaced. It appears that once more, poor Mexico is being used as the whipping boy by other countries and cultures. We’re going to blog about that more in the future. All we can say is that if you are refusing to travel to Mexico because of swine flu, you should be refusing to travel anywhere because the virus exists all around the world at this point. The good news is that it still does not appear to have a high fatality rate or be a particularly destructive virus. To read more about the swine flu, we suggest this Los Angeles Times article: Scientists See this Flu Strain as Relatively Mild.

We will be blogging more about Playa and the effects that this unfair travel ban has had on it over the next couple of days. Right now we’re just going to offer some pictures of our adopted home to show you what it looks like as of today. Before we do that, one personal note: We’ve removed a certain individual’s comments from our blog twice now. We did so because we thought the comments were exactly the type of irresponsible statements about swine flu that we’ve been reading all over the internet and seeing all over the television and have been trying to counter balance. There are plenty of public forums on the internet where anyone with this individual’s views can set forth whatever claims he or she wants, regardless of their veracity. But this is our blog, and it is not available for abuse by others. We intend to keep it a place for rational and factual information during this circumstance. We hope our regular readers understand and approve.

Now, here are some photos to illustrate that Playa is open for business and being enjoyed by locals and tourists alike:

The parking lot at the supposedly empty and closed Playa del Carmen Walmart

Looking inside the Playa del Carmen Walmart

The checkout stand at Walmart. Yes, it was crowded enough we had to wait.

Fifth Avenue showing tourists moving from shop to shop and restaurant to restaurant

Another view of tourists on Fifth Avenue

Playa Norte in front of the Kool and Mamita’s beach clubs

Another view of Playa Norte

More Playa Norte

Finally, for you guys out there who cancelled your vacation that was supposed to start in Playa del Carmen today, here’s a little taste of what you missed:

By the way, while we were writing this, we heard Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown interview Dr. Roy Gulick, Chief of Infectious Diseases at New York Presbyterian Hospital, who said that at this point the swine flu seems to be no more dangerous than the standard influenza that we see each year. Is it time to start talking about overreaction???

For a link to other other blog entry on this topic, click here.

Posted in News & Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments »

Playa del Carmen, Is it Safe?? Part II…the Swine Flu

Posted by Tony & Cheri on April 28, 2009

We thought it time we said something about the swine flu in Mexico. First let’s deal with the current situation in Playa del Carmen as we know it.

As of this morning there have been no reported cases of swine flu in Playa del Carmen or in the larger area of Quintana Roo, the state in which Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Tulum reside. In fact, to our knowledge, there have been no reported cases of swine flu in the entire Yucatan peninsula, comprising the eastern portion of the country of Mexico. This somewhat contradicts the statement of a so-called medical expert on MSNBC TV last night who proclaimed with wild eyes that the virus had “spread through the entire country of Mexico.”

Playa del Carmen itself is calm, except for the kids who seem to be everywhere today. Mexico in its wisdom has closed all of the schools nationwide until next Wednesday. As a result, the kids have a holiday and are making the best use of it. Kinda like snow days we remember from our own childhood. 🙂

There are no other closings or restrictions to our knowledge. Stores and restaurants, clubs and tours, business offices and government buildings are all open for business. We haven’t seen anyone wearing a mask. There is no sense of hysteria or even anxiety about this. The main concern is how the economy will react to the sudden drop in tourism, since so many people earn their living from that industry.

We were disappointed to see the travel advisory put out by the Centers for Disease Control suggesting that non-essential travel to Mexico be curtailed. We appreciate the CDC and Homeland Security are doing their jobs, and we applaud them for it. However, the travel restriction seems to have more political foundation than health concern. There is an advisory against traveling anywhere in Mexico, not just the areas which have reported cases of swine flu, which is primarily Mexico City. While the US government is advising individuals not to travel to Mexico, there are no advisories against travel witihin the US, despite the fact that there are a number of swine flu cases there over a broader geographical area. And of course, when India, China and the European Union advises its citizens not to travel to the US, our government responds” ‘that’s not necessary.’ As we say, there is a lot of political emphasis here as the different countries weigh in on this issue.

Above the fray of nationalized attitudes, the World Health Organization has taken a different tact. The World Health Organization says that restriction on travel will have absolutely no affect whatsoever in controlling or eliminating this disease. According to the most recent WHO travel updates on swine flu, “WHO does not recommend to restrict international travel. As usual, it is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention.”

Concern in this situation is legitimate and a natural response, but hysteria is not, and hysteria seems to be building, primarily through an overabundance of sensationalized news coverage. There is a difference between reporting the facts and creating a sense of overwhelming danger and impending doom. The other night FOX News led its evening broadcast with a split screen showing Mexico City on one side and the disaster movie Outbreak on the other!

But FOX is not alone in its overhype of this situation as a medical disaster. And that’s not just our opinion. “Of course we’re doing too much to scare people,” said Mark Feldstein, a former correspondent for NBC, ABC and CNN who teaches journalism at George Washington University. “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.” This quote comes from an excellent article by Howard Kurtz in today’s Washington Post. You can find it here.

Another good article can be found on from David Whelan of Mr. Whelan makes the point: “Hysteria and exotic-sounding disease outbreaks go hand in hand. Whether it’s anthrax, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, bird flu or, going back to the 1990s, ebola—news of an outbreak generates fear that’s disproportionate to the risk of catching the disease. In each of these cases deaths, if they occurred at all, were minimal.” He also goes on to say, “…in every year this decade—between 30,000 and 50,000 American deaths were recorded from complications related to the seasonal flu. Another 40,000 people died in automobile accidents. And each year, gunshot wounds account for 30,000 deaths, around 4,000 people drown while swimming or boating and 60 people die from lightning strikes.”

This is not to say that people should not be concerned. They should. This is a health issue they should pay attention to. But at this point in time, we have a virus that has been reported in only 65 people in the US (according to the CDC official report) . There have been no fatalities and only one hospitalization, and all seem to be on the road to recovery. There have been deaths in Mexico City, but only 20 have been conclusively linked to swine flu at this time. In a city of 22 million.

So we are suggesting some perspective and some calm. If you’re worried and don’t wish to travel at this time, that is obviously your choice. If you are canceling an existing reservation with a hotel, an airline or a travel agent, you should contact them immediately to see what your options are. Truthfully, most will tell you that you have no options and will forfeit your deposit. The reason for that is simple. They have no more control over medical circumstances and governmental advisories than you do. Trust us, your cancellation will cost them much more money than your forfeited deposit will cost you. They will still have to pay their employees, pay their overhead expenses and try and continue their business. We know this from personal experience. However, it never hurts to ask, and some businesses in the travel industry are creating some alternative plans for people who are wishing to change or delay their travel. Of course, this is another reason we always recommend people purchase travel insurance.

At our own Luna Blue Hotel, we have had some cancellations, some delays, and a number of new reservations for the upcoming weeks. We are certainly not in a position to tell people they should or should not travel during this time. But we are informing people that in our opinion travel to Playa del Carmen is safe, and we continue to accept and honor reservations. We’re trying to be understanding of our guests’ situations at this time, and so we have modified our cancellation policy to allow guests to change their reservations if they want to come later in the summer.

If you’re planning a trip to Playa del Carmen now or in the near future, we hope this has been of some help. Despite all the hype and fear, the Caribbean Sea is still a beautiful blue, and the skies are sunny. And if you are going to be in town the 5th of May, don’t miss our blowout Cinco de Mayo party at the Luna Blue Bar.

For more recent information on this topic, Playa is Open for Business…Still No Flu in Sight.

Read our most current blog entry about safety:
Safety in Playa del Carmen Mexico ~ 2012

Visit our Facebook page and become a fan of Luna Blue Hotel & Bar!

Posted in News & Politics, Safety in Mexico, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 49 Comments »