US-Mexico border closure turned busy streets into ghost town – Business Insider

The only sounds in the tattoo studio are rock music and the buzzing of two tattoo machines. In the 71-year-old pawn shop across the street, it's silent except for the humming air conditioner and a telenovela playing in the background.

For the most part, an empty quiet fills El Paso's downtown and keeps local businesses in a stranglehold. As a ban on non-essential travel from Mexico drags on into its 16th month, businesses in the border city have seen cash flows shrivel and have struggled to stay alive after up to half their customers vanished.

The US government first banned non-essential travel from Mexico to curb the spread of COVID-19 in April 2020, and has extended the restrictions every month since then.

"What was once a thriving street is now a ghost town," Jon Barela, CEO of the economic development organization Borderplex Alliance, told Insider. He noted that up to 30% of retail sales in this area were made to Mexicans before the border closure. "It's had a devastating impact on many of those small businesses in our region."

In Dave's Loan Co, a cramped pawn shop in one of the oldest buildings in town, the owner has met disintegrating foot traffic and a dwindling loan balance with somber resignation. His parents owned the shop before him, and his grandparents bought the building when he was seven years old.

"We've been here 71 years. What else can I say? It's very hard to see it like this," Baron said. "We've spent our whole lives here."

Though he loves the carousel of eccentric people and items that cycle through the doors, he lives off social security benefits since he can't afford to pay himself a salary anymore.

His tiny shop is crammed floor-to-ceiling with pawned off oddities, ranging from the typical to the unsettling. What Baron says is a real mummy brought in years ago by a mysterious customer faces the cashier counter (sticker price of $15,000), and a blackened, wizened finger purported to be Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa's trigger finger is displayed in a shadow box in the shop window.

Built in the 1870s as a horse stable, the building was allegedly frequented by Billy the Kid, Wyatt Erp, as well as the other desperados, gunslingers, and outlaws during its wild west days, Baron said. But now, the store is hemorrhaging cash, neighboring businesses are shuttering, and the downtown is filling with "for rent" signs.

"What can you do?" Baron said.

Located in a bend in the Rio Grande, El Paso's downtown juts up against a port of entry where a trickle of cars and pedestrians pass back and forth from Ciudad Jurez, El Paso's twin city on the other side of the border fence. The two cities' histories and communities have been knitted together for generations families and friends live on either side of the border; people cross to work, shop, and socialize; and roughly $72 billion worth of international trade crosses into El Paso from Juarez every year.

The closure has made in-person gatherings in the US practically impossible and cut off a crucial source of revenue for many El Paso businesses. It's unclear when the travel restrictions will lift or even what requirements would have to be met before that happens.

Tom Fullerton, an economist at the University of Texas at El Paso, estimates that local businesses lost $200 million in retail sales in 2020 due to the border restrictions.

"If the border ever re-opens, that is a lot of pent-up demand," Fullerton said.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security extended the restrictions until September. In the meantime, other businesses have found new ways to reach Mexican customers who are barred from crossing. At a 39-year-old boutique dress shop, where girls often bought their prom and quinceaera dresses at the same place that their mothers first tried on their wedding gowns, the owner now hand-delivers wedding dresses to her clients in Mexico.

Elodia Perches, the owner of Bridal Novias, said around half her customer base was from Mexico before the pandemic. Last year, her revenue plummeted by around 90%.

"The only reason I'm in business still is because I have a guardian angel," she said. "I feel like, literally, we are blessed."

Fabian Cobos, the owner of Golden Goose Tattoo, said his business was on the brink of shutting down during the pandemic. During the lockdown, he'd often jolt awake from sleep, panicked and his heart racing, wondering when his business and the world would return to normal.

It still hasn't. His store lost around 10% of its customers because of the border closure, but he hopes a lifting of restrictions would revive foot traffic and customers that many borderland businesses rely on.

Despite the economic impact of the border closure, public health experts are divided over how effective travel restrictions are at taming the virus's spread.

"I don't think keeping the border closed necessarily makes any sense since there's already so much COVID in Texas," Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California Irvine, said. "Travel restrictions in general worldwide is like the saying of 'a horse has bolted from the barn' a long time ago."

Armando Meza, chief of infectious diseases at Texas Tech University, said achieving high immunization rates in the US and Northern Mexican states would reduce the risk of spreading the virus once the borders reopen. El Paso's vaccination rate has hit 71%, while Ciudad Jurez lingers at around 30%, with the US promising to deliver 8.5 million vaccine doses to Mexico in the next month.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said vaccine parity between the two regions should be a priority, noting that opening the border would allow areas like El Paso to set up vaccination hubs for people from Jurez and the surrounding areas, where it's more difficult to access vaccines.

"I don't think we can solve this issue by having the bridges closed," he said. "We solve it by dealing with the reality of this situation."

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US-Mexico border closure turned busy streets into ghost town - Business Insider

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