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El Paso, Juárez businesses near the border struggle to survive through COVID-19 travel restrictions

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Businesses on both sides of the Paso del Norte Bridge, reliant on foot traffic of border-crossers who stop and shop, have been hit hard by the border shutdown. The longer the border remains closed, the more difficult it becomes for some of these businesses to stay open.

“It’s the same for all of us, so dead,” said Jeong Ho Kye, owner of ORALE, a clothing store on South El Paso Street, one block north of the bridge.

Racks of denim dresses and piles of jeans fill ORALE to the brim, and neon signs advertise “OFERTA $2.” But despite the deep discounts, there are no customers. 

Kye said he pays $3,000 a month in rent, and that some larger neighboring stores pay upwards of $5,000; he knows he isn’t alone in wondering whether he’ll be able to keep making rent if the shutdown continues much longer. “I cannot think (about the) future. I think too much (about the) future, but I don’t have any idea,” said Kye, who opened ORALE one year ago.  

Deep discounts have long attracted Mexican shoppers to South El Paso stores, but COVID-19 travel restrictions are keeping them away. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Two blocks south on the other side of the bridge in Ciudad Juárez, Josefina Gutierrez de Acuña also hopes for customers at the restaurant she manages, Taquería El Trompo.

“We are all stressed, nervous, worried, even sick with fear of losing our jobs,” Gutierrez said. “Nobody is coming in, absolutely nobody. Here on Avenida Juárez (the border shutdown) has affected us a lot.” 

Josefina Gutierrez de Acuña, manager of Taquería El Trompo on Avenida Juárez has little to do in the kitchen since the border shutdown began in March. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Paso del Norte Bridge is a few steps from her kitchen, but these days that location is hardly an advantage. Fewer El Pasoans are crossing over, and those who do cross tend to spend less money on recreational purchases. 

“Now with the closing of the bridge, people no longer come. The few people who do (cross the border into Juárez), no longer want to eat (out at a restaurant),” Gutierrez said.

Border restrictions could have long-term impacts

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez businesses near the border have felt the harsh impact of the COVID-19 border closure to all but “essential” travel, in effect since March 21. Non-essential travel includes tourism, while medical treatment, school, and documented employment are among essential reasons for crossing the border. 

U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents returning to the United are classified as “essential” travel in the regulation limiting border crossings. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced on Friday that it would take added measures to reduce non-essential travel into Mexico, including conducting more secondary checks on border-crossers.  

“A lot of Mexican shoppers prefer to come over and shop on this side, and with the non-essential travel restrictions, (business has) almost come to a halt,” said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive officer of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

COVID-19 restrictions have greatly reduced crossings at the Paso del Norte Bridge linking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Matters)

“The purchasing power of the Mexican consumer is huge and many Downtown retailers, especially some of those that are closer to the bridge, are seeing as many as 85 percent of their sales have dropped,” she said. 

Blanca Tiscareño works at Chelitos, a restaurant on the El Paso side. 

“We are at the entrance of El Paso and the United States, and the people who come to work are what help us,” Tiscareño said. “Before, there were people coming all day, people crossing from Mexico. And all day we were busy. Now we’re empty. So it’s something that has affected us a lot.”

Blanca Tiscareño works at Chelitos, a South El Paso restaurant that has seen a huge drop in business since COVID-19 travel restrictions were implemented in March at the U.S.-Mexico border. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Tom Fullerton, an economist at the University of Texas at El Paso and head of the Border Region Modeling Project, said that El Paso stands to lose at least 25 percent of retail exports this year. “If the peso wasn’t so weak and the (border travel) restrictions weren’t so severe, $1.2 billion in retail sales could have been exported to residents from Northern Mexico,” Fullerton said. 

Fullerton warns the loss in sales could have a lasting impact on the border economy.

“For a lot of stores (a 25 percent drop in sales is) enough to cause them to go into bankruptcy or close their doors. In that case, commercial vacancies will increase in Downtown El Paso and at other shopping centers,” he said.

Some border businesses are already considering shutting their doors as they calculate how much longer they can remain open without shoppers from Mexico. 

In Ciudad Juárez, Gutierrez estimates that Taquería El Trompo can survive for another two months if the border remains closed. On the El Paso side, Tiscareño of Chelitos restaurant echoes that concern.  “I think if it continues like this, we will have to close,” she said. 

Restrictions could have widespread effects on El Paso businesses

In August 2019, nearly 349,842 people crossed northbound at the Paso del Norte bridge by foot, according to PDN Uno. In April 2020, the last month for which data is available, north-bound pedestrian crossings at this entry had dwindled to 66,764. 

“The retail impact (of the border closure) on El Paso is incredible,” said Tanny Berg, describing the shutdown as “earth-shattering” for El Paso businesses. 

Berg, a real estate developer and business leader who was a South El Paso merchant for years, emphasized that the purchasing power of Mexican consumers has a strong ripple effect throughout the local economy. For every dollar spent at Cielo Vista Mall before the shutdown, 52 cents was spent by shoppers from Mexico, according to Berg.

Northbound pedestrian crossings have plummeted at the Paso del Norte Bridge because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Berg warned that economic struggles faced by businesses immediately adjacent to the international bridge are indicators of larger scale economic trends. He expressed concern about the long-term impact if consumers from Ciudad Juárez and other Mexican cities change their habits to shop solely in Mexico. 

“There are substantially more legally crossing Mexican nationals who have buttressed up the economy along the border,” said Berg, noting the focus is too often placed on undocumented crossings. 

“Those businesses are tax-paying, those businesses are American-owned, and those businesses have for years been a resource for Mexican nationals to shop,” he said.

During the shutdown, many in Mexico have been forced to change their buying habits and shop at stores south of the border. 

“We’re thinking COVID will eventually get better, things will open up, but at the end of the day there’s no assurance that those Mexican consumers are coming back,” Berg said. 

Cover photo: A young woman who is an American citizen waits in front of a shuttered business on Avenida Juarez after crossing with groceries she purchased in El Paso. Until recently, U.S. citizens and permanent residents were able to cross unimpeded for shopping, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection has enacted restrictions that make shopping crossings more onerous. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. She has a new album coming out on Sister Polygon Records in fall 2020, and is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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