What to expect while visiting Cancun during a pandemic

After five and a half months away from our home here in Cancun we’re back! We’ve missed the sunshine, the tiny little geckos that run around inside our home and being just a short drive from some of the world’s most gorgeous beaches. Now that Quintana Roo is officially in the “yellow” phase of their gradual reopening plan the entire city is coming back to life.

The thing most people aren’t aware of is that Cancun didn’t actually close down. I mean sure flights here stopped, hotels shut down, tourist attractions closed their doors & people were cautiously urged to stay home but the city, state and even Mexico as a country never officially closed its border. Businesses, local levels of government and communities have been working together since to safely present a reopening plan to be able to welcome back tourists. As it stands right now Mexico does not require any type of quarantine from visitors, residents or citizens arriving from another country internationally. Mexican officials also don’t require a negative COVID test to gain entry to the country. Mexico has a pretty fragile healthcare system but officials feel comfortable with the safety measures they do have in place for locals to get back to work and for tourists to help revive the economy.

Back in March as this was all quickly unfolding in North America and there were so many unknowns we suddenly found ourselves out of work and with big decisions to be made. Every resort we normally shoot weddings at had announced practically on the same day they’d be temporarily closing and wedding couple after wedding couple started reaching out to us to let us know their wedding was either being cancelled or postponed. Our whole world was being turned upside down along with everyone else and we made the extremely difficult decision to book a last minute flight to Toronto, my hometown, to be with my family and ride out most of this uncertainty there.

Fast forward hotels here in Mexico started reopening. Flights from Canada and other countries resumed and a good portion of our 2020 wedding clients were holding out hope and keeping their wedding dates as well as even a few new clients interested in booking with us. It was excitedly time to come back to our Mexican home!

When we hopped on a plane back in March neither the Cancun airport nor this city were prepared for what was unfolding. We had neighbours still throwing big parties, hospital nurses were going on strike already knowing they didn’t have the proper PPE or equipment needed to protect themselves or treat patients and the Cancun airport was this empty shell of a building trying to operate business as usual. On March 25th, 2020 when we left absolutely no one in the Cancun airport was taking any kind of precautions such as wearing masks or encouraging distancing in lines. In fact I had a woman from Mexican immigration ask me where I bought my mask and the Air Canada agent who checked us in for our flight nervously told us she wasn’t allowed to wear a mask because it might scare the tourists.

I’m happy to say that has all changed! This city relies on tourism and needed to get its act together not only for our communities but for our international visitors. A huge percentage of us who live in Cancun rely on tourism dollars and the trickle effect is felt widespread across the area.

Now when you arrive at the Cancun airport you’ll notice all airport staff are wearing masks as it is now mandatory for all employees and travellers passing through the airport to wear a proper face covering at all times. We flew back to Mexico last week on September 7, 2020. There are now social distancing stickers on the ground in line at immigration, in elevators and in the baggage claim area.

After immigration but before baggage claim you will pass through an area equipped with thermal imaging cameras which are designed to detect anyone with an elevated body temperature which may require closer screening for a possible fever. Most people don’t even realize they are walking past the equipment as a man quietly sits off to the side wearing a hazmat suit watching a few monitors. When we left Cancun in March it was their first week with the thermal cameras and they were extremely strict about us needing to pass in front of the camera one at a time in just the right place and hold still. My 5-year-old daughter was yelled at for not waiting her turn and had to return to walk past the camera on her own. Now more than five months later people are just spilling past it in groups not even knowing it’s there.

I’d say more than half of the tourists I saw arriving in the Cancun airport weren’t respecting the distancing markers anywhere not even in line for immigration where things have a bit more of a stricter and serious feeling. At the luggage carousal I’d also say a good 25% of people waiting for their suitcases to come out had slipped their masks under their nose, chin or removed it all together and I didn’t see a single airport employee approach anyone. I was slightly disappointed airport staff weren’t taking a more active roll in enforcing these new rules.

Baggage claim carousels were being shared by several different flights from different cities which I found odd they didn’t space them out as some carousels sat empty. Passengers from our flight from Toronto were collecting suitcases literally at the same time on the same carousel as a flight from Atlanta, Georgia. As someone who works in tourism I absolutely want to see rules as we all need to do our part to get tourism safely rolling again to regain trust from our guests from around the world. If you’re extremely nervous I’d recommend just waiting back against the wall until the crowd around the carousel thins out before you grab your suitcase. People for some reason have an instinct to rush through the airport but really waiting back away from people might only cost you an extra 10-15 minutes.

The vast majority of people are respecting the mandatory safety measures in place but I’m just trying to share an extremely honest account of our experience through the Cancun airport during all of this that it’s not perfect. People aren’t perfect and if you’re extremely apprehensive about travelling during this time you may want to rethink it. That said travel is still possible (even if you’re nervous) and will go smoother if you have honest expectations how things may unfold.

I took our travel day all in strides travelling alone with my daughter taking things seriously but also without being overly nervous. We did not travel light by any means (we had 2 large hardshell suitcases, a U-Haul box & a Rubbermaid bin full of our personal goodies) and we managed just fine. We were asked to veer off to the side as we were leaving to just run our large box and bin through a secondary x-ray screening but that was it. None of our bags were ever opened. A few things actually made me laugh though a little like being given a detailed health screening questionnaire to fill out on the plane but no one asked to see it once we landed or even asked us any of the questions on it. We made our way through immigration, baggage claim & walked right past customs as usual. I went home with the COVID questionnaire crumpled up in my pocket.

I counted a good 8-10 flights that had just landed within the hour or two of our flight which was a great sign things are really starting to pick-up again. Ours was the only Canadian flight (from Toronto) and the rest seemed to be flights from the US. I couldn’t even tell you exactly how many times I’ve landed in the Cancun airport in my lifetime (maybe close to 100 times) and the whole experience didn’t really feel that much different than normal aside from the fact my daughter and I were both wearing masks.

Hotel transportation services and taxis each have a set of guidelines they also need to follow now including capacity restrictions. Masks are required inside all transportation vehicles taking tourists to hotels. I have heard that many drivers also take each passenger’s temperature. Transport buses are only allowing 50% capacity on board at a time but with overall lower occupancy rates at the hotels it shouldn’t be a problem. In the latest phase taxis are allowed 3 people in a vehicle at a time (that includes the driver) and private transportation vehicles can have 4.

If you rent a car or are making any stops on the way to your hotel it’s important to know all businesses in and around Cancun require people to wear a mask at all times. That includes grocery stores, connivence stores, coffee shops, malls and restaurants. As the state of Quintana Roo slowly reopens the stricter rules of only one family member may enter a store at a time is loosening but at this point many big stores like Walmart are not allowing children inside.

So far I’ve noticed temperature checks seem to be a very common thing here. I’ve had my temperature checked going into our local grocery store, while entering Walmart and a private condominium. The standard seems to be to take temperatures with a no-contact thermometer aiming it at the arm and then they give you a squirt of hand sanitizer before entering. I saw someone online concerned their body temperature may read too high because of the heat here in Mexico and falsely look like a fever but that’s not really how it works. Even at the airport they have a secondary screening area if your temperature reads high they can give you a bit of time to rest and retake it.

Driving around Cancun I can say mask usage has become pretty common here even outside. Masks aren’t required to be worn by law outside (only inside spaces) but many people are wearing them at all times as they’re getting on and off of public buses, walking down congested streets, by habit in cars and going in and out of various stores or businesses. Having just left Toronto in comparison I can say I have already seen way more people choosing to wear a mask here in Cancun while out and about (not just when required inside a store) than in most areas around Ontario I recently visited.

Some hotels started reopening back in June but due to government regulations only allowing 30% occupancy. I excitedly watched a few of the emotional reopening events live on Facebook from some of the big resorts we work at often at like Moon Palace as they welcomed their first guests back to the hotel. Quintana Roo is literally right in the middle of being bumped up to allow 60% occupancy although it is slow season so I wouldn’t expect resorts to be busy any time soon.

Each resort seems to have their own health and safety regulations so I’d suggest looking up the hotel you’re interested in to see the latest news on their requirements or precautions being taken varying from mask usage to room sanitization. In general all hotels require resort staff to wear a mask at all times with some employees also wearing a face shield. All employees and vendors entering a hotel are quickly screened by having their temperature taken and are required to sanitize their hands. Most also have a floor mat filled with a sanitizing solution employees need to step through to limit the spread of anything that could be tracked along from the bottom of a shoe. Guests aren’t required to wear masks once at a resort but there are a few hotels I heard do require masks to be worn while inside the main lobby or indoor spaces. Masks are definitely not mandatory outside by the pools or beach and friends I know who have already been to hotels have all applauded the resort staff for making them feel comfortable and safe.

It’s been a bit of a sticky topic with locals but beaches had remained closed long after resorts reopened their doors welcoming back international guests. All beaches in Mexico are public which means no resort actually privately owns the beach you’re enjoying at the hotel. That said there’s been a bit of a silent tourist loophole to allow hotel guests to use a beach connected to a resort which is the reason quite a few locals have stayed a few nights at beachfront hotels to give them access to the beach. Beaches are slowly opening for all again as Quintana Roo slips into the next safety phase.

Most area attractions, excursions like Xcaret & Mayan ruins archeological sites have also safely reopened. Just like the resorts masks aren’t required by guests when outdoors but all employees are required to wear masks at all times. Social distancing & frequent hand washing is encouraged.

Now that I’m back in Cancun all settled in it won’t be long before we’ll be off on little adventures as a family again. We have always loved to explore the Yucatán Peninsula soaking up everything our area has to offer from off the beaten path little hidden gems to local attractions and big all-inclusive resorts. I’ll be sure to share our experiences as we go to provide an honest look how things currently are and what tourists can expect. Overall I do feel comfortable with the efforts being made and believe we can return to some sense of travel normalcy here in Mexico if businesses, locals and tourists all work together.

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