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COVID-19 Coverage

How masks became a habit in Mexico City

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Mexico, the federal government never issued a mask mandate. In fact, the president has rarely worn a mask. But in Mexico City, masks are still everywhere. Many residents wear them indoors and outdoors. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on why.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: On a crisp morning at a flower market in Mexico City, I notice about half of the people here are wearing masks. It's not crowded. It's mostly open air. But Reina Lopez (ph), who's 74, is wearing a KN-95.

REINA LOPEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "They tell us that the danger is over," she says, "but it's not true." During the pandemic, she saw neighbors and family members die. She says this pandemic is not over. And who knows? Maybe there's even some other virus lurking.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) And now we're protected. And on top of that, we're used to wearing masks.

PERALTA: Across the market, we hear variations of the same thing. The government says drop the masks, but the fear lingers. Alejandra Miguel Perez (ph) says she wears a mask because she keeps hearing different things - that you're OK with the vaccine, that now there is a new variant that is dangerous.

ALEJANDRA MIGUEL PEREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: She's heard so much, she says, she doesn't know what to believe. Also, as the pandemic wore on, she noticed that the masks also protected her from Mexico City's pollution.

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) Maybe we're stuck with masks because if we don't get sick with COVID, we could still get sick from the pollution.

PERALTA: Mexico suffered a lot during this pandemic. Officially, more than 300,000 people have died of COVID. To epidemiologist Alejandro Macias, that trauma explains why, in Mexico City, masks are still worn even outside.

ALEJANDRO MACIAS: It seems that people have suffered such a high degree of these things that I think they are trying to do something.

PERALTA: The Mexican government took a notably hands-off approach to COVID. They communicated best practices. But they didn't impose curfews or even a national mask mandate. And at the very top, the mood has always been relaxed.

MACIAS: The president, being very popular as he is, he never used the face mask. But people use the face masks.

PERALTA: Macias says a deep change has happened in Mexico City. Maybe, he says, it has become like Seoul, where citizens turn to masks when there are respiratory diseases or when there's pollution. And he doesn't see it changing any time soon. At the flower market, I find Marcos Reyes (ph) in a corner, breathing easy without his mask.

MARCOS REYES: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "The mask is uncomfortable," he says, especially because he works pushing hundreds of pounds of flowers on a handcart.

REYES: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "You need air," he says, "and this mask makes it harder."

REYES: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He's from the countryside. No one wears masks there, he says. And few people got sick. Reyes says he hates wearing a mask. He's not even convinced it stops COVID from spreading.

REYES: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: But at the end of the day, he says, we have to respect others. So out of courtesy, he's wearing one anyway.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CACTUS CHANNEL'S "STAY A WHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.