June 15, 2020 / 8:09 PM / a month ago

Mexican president's airport project pushes full steam ahead despite coronavirus

ZUMPANGO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico’s economy has virtually ground to a halt and is bleeding jobs in the pandemic lockdown, but tens of thousands of workers at a flagship government airport have not skipped a beat, toiling around the clock north of Mexico City to keep it on schedule.

General view of the construction of the seismic shock absorbers of Mexico City's new Felipe Angeles airport being built on the Santa Lucia military base, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in the town of Zumpango in Mexico State, Mexico, June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero

When the government ordered non-essential activities to close and workers in those industries to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus, an exception was made for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s priority infrastructure projects.

Those include the $3.5 billion Felipe Angeles airport being built on the Santa Lucia military base, an $8 billion refinery at the Gulf coast port of Dos Bocas, and the so-called Maya Train, a 1,470-km (913-mile) rail line that will connect tourist hot spots from Chiapas state to the Yucatan Peninsula along the Caribbean coast.

Firms producing steel, cement and glass - used by those projects - were also allowed to continue operating. On June 1 automotive, aerospace, mining and construction companies were allowed to reopen.

“To date we have created more than 26,000 jobs,” said Major Jose Juan Marin, construction engineer and spokesman for the Santa Lucia Army Corp of Engineers, which has nearly 1,000 of its ranks managing the project.

On a cloudy day earlier this month, thousands of workers in orange high-visibility vests and hard hats, as well as a newcomer to construction sites in times of pandemic, face masks, were busy building offices, putting up giant steel structures for the passenger terminal and smoothing out the surface of one of two 4.5 kilometer (3.8 mile) runways.

Marin says there has not been a coronavirus outbreak due to the safety protocols put in place, including taking workers’ temperature, the use of masks, and having half of office employees work remotely.

Lopez Obrador says the projects are a much needed boon to the economy and an important source of employment. Critics counter that those resources would be better used tackling the coronavirus crisis and boosting the economy.

“Without a doubt the main priority is stopping or overcoming the health crisis and to this end we need to find all the available resources,” said Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a three-time presidential candidate and son of former president Lazaro Cardenas.

“I’d even say think about deferring the megaprojects and using those resources.”

Powerful industry lobbies say the projects do not make up for the lack of a government stimulus package to keep firms from going under and letting workers go. Latin America’s second largest economy is seen contracting 10% or more this year.

A survey conducted by the National statistics agency INEGI found that 12.5 million formal and informal jobs were lost in April alone. And industrial output posted a record contraction, tumbling 25.1% in April from March and plummeting 29.3% year-over-year, as measures put in place to halt coronavirus contagion dragged down construction, manufacturing and utilities.

Lopez Obrador ordered the new hub to be built on a military base to save money after he canned a $13 billion Mexico City airport project championed by his predecessor, arguing it was too costly and tainted by corruption.

Critics say the cheaper and more distant airport will condemn the metropolis of more than 20 million inhabitants to a fate of never-ending flight delays and cancellations.

But it could at least be built on time. Eight months after breaking ground, the airport project which will initially have an annual capacity of 20 million passengers is a fifth complete and on track for completion for March 2022.

“We’re going to make good on that date without any problem,” said Marin.

Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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