MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Parents cancelled children’s parties, nightclubbers were booted out and people stocked up on DVDs as Mexico City residents huddled at home for the weekend in the midst of a serious flu scare.
The capital, one of the world’s biggest cities, suspended public events and closed bars and restaurants to try to halt the spread of a new flu virus that has killed up to 81 people in Mexico, with more than 1,300 believed to have been infected.
In the United States, at least 11 people have been infected.
The World Health Organisation warned that the swine flu outbreak could become a global epidemic, putting health authorities around the world on alert.
Sidewalks were quiet in central Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis that is home to some 20 million people and where most of the confirmed flu deaths have occurred.
Bird song echoed clearly through an almost deserted Chapultepec Park, which usually rings with the sound of large families on joy rides and rowing boats.
As millions more people than usual stayed indoors, DVD rental stores did a roaring trade.
“A ton of people have been coming in. They come and rent three movies at once because they know they are going to stay in the house all weekend,” said Manuel Garcia, 28, an employee at a DVD rental shop in the Polanco neighbourhood.
The most popular titles were disaster movies and films about epidemics like 2008’s “Blindness,” in which people worldwide lose their sight to an unknown infection, he said.
“We are trying to avoid taking the kids to public places where there are lots of people. Normally we take them to the park or a party but we want to avoid the risk of infection,” said Angelina Gutierrez, a mother of two who was planning to spend most of the weekend at home in the Narvarte district.
Supermarkets were busier than usual and panic buying began in some stores. Miguel Rivera, 38, a marketing executive, pushed a shopping cart with 60 litres (16 gallons) of water.
“It’s only a precaution in case the problem’s worse than they’ve told us,” he said.
One of the world’s most famous soccer venues, the Aztec Stadium, will be quiet on Sunday when home team America takes on league rival Tecos. Fans will be banned from the huge structure, which can hold 105,000, to avoid spreading the flu.
The capital’s schools were ordered closed on Friday for the first time since a 1985 earthquake that killed about 10,000 people. They may stay shut next week.
The Health Ministry warned people against touching or kissing while greeting each other, a difficult measure to enforce in a country where even loose acquaintances hug or give pecks on the cheek.
Worshipers at a Catholic church in the capital held back from shaking each other’s hands in an offering of peace, as is traditional, at Mass.
Authorities went around bars and restaurants on Friday night, forcing out revellers and telling owners to shut down.
“We closed down about 70 percent of them in Mexico City,” Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said. He asked bars, clubs, restaurants and concert venues to stay closed for 10 days but it was unclear if they could be legally required to remain shut.
Motorcycle couriers did a brisk trade delivering fast food to people shunning restaurants.
Mexico has 1 million doses of antiviral medicine, easily enough to treat the cases reported so far, and the WHO says Mexican authorities are capable of handling the outbreak.
But the lack of visitors to Chapultepec Park, a rare haven of green in the smoggy city, showed people were taking no chances.
“There are much fewer people,” said Oscar Campos, 19, a vendor of mangoes and orange juice who normally makes around 10 sales in the first few hours of a weekend day. “We haven’t sold anything.”
Additional reporting by Robert Campbell and Michael O'Boyle; Editing by John O'Callaghan