The Zone At Reset

After ten tough months, the Corozal Free Zone re-opened today. It offers an economic lifeline to nortenos - hundreds of whom lost their jobs - but it also poses serious health risks since Mexicans can now come streaming across the border. Yes, the same Mexico which just three days ago overtook India as the country with the world's third most Covid deaths.

Here at the Free Zone, they will go through checks and sanitisation, but there's no COVID testing for shoppers, so it's far from COVID proof.

But, it was a political promise made to the north of the country where the PUP won seven of 8 electoral seats in the November General Election so, in a sense, the party had to deliver.

They did today, with what is being called a soft opening. Here's how it looked on day one of the Zone's return:

Lines! That was the story of the Corozal Free Zone this morning this one on the Belize side as hundreds of workers queued up for immigration processing,

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"The borders are closed. For you to cross the Belizean immigration border to come to work you have to either be an employee of the Corozal Freezone or an investor in the Corozal Freezone. This morning was a traffic jam and they were following a list provided by us, but that list was only the employees who have came to renew their ID to work in the freezone and if you are not on the list they will not allow you. Upon coming to work today, I was one of them in the line. As I came to the office I call Miss Baptist and I explain to her the situation and she addressed it immediately."

And on the Mexican side this was the line on the Chactemal bridge where Mexican shoppers also had to line up for quite a long wait. That's a delay caused by the new protocol for entering:

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"All Mexicans coming in first of all are to come only through the new bridge. That is the Chactemal Bridge. The reason why is because we don't want to have a traffic jam and the second reason is because we are working together with the OIRISA personnel. What they are doing is they are asking all the visitors to come out from the vehicle so they could sanitize all vehicles coming from the Mexican side and is at no cost to the Mexicans. It's free of charge. Then they come to the freezone. Upon reaching the gate before you enter the gate you have a compliance officer checking temperature that you are okay. If you are above the prescribe limit they will not allow you to come into the freezone. Secondly, they have to sanitize your hands and thirdly you have to walk in through the tunnel."

And inside the zone they found things moving slowly, only about 30% of the shops are opened, amounting to 36 stores, two gas stations, a pharmacy and a restaurant. That's why it's called a soft opening with health inspections ongoing:

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"The health department have already inspected 105 businesses, but out of that 105 inspected, not all of them were approved. About 46 of them were approved immediately because they already complied with the requirements. The remaining ones were given a recommendation what needs to be done to comply and they will open shortly after that."

The Zone management expects a full opening in March - and in that time they'll have to find a way to bring in business from Chetumal - which is also fighting for its commercial life without your business:

"Are you guys looking at how you're going to engage Mexicans to come to the freezone?"

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"As you know we are a new administration. We are just opening. It's an ongoing process and yes we have to look into some implementations to attract our Mexicans to visit the freezone. Definitely, yes."

"Any reactions about turnout this morning from the clients?"

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"They're happy."

And while we didn't see crowds to cheer about today - just the fact that the zone is opened after 10 months is certainly cause for some social relief in the north - where thousands lost their jobs, and now hundreds are going to get a paycheck:

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"There are over 800 employees who have registered or renewed their ID which means that they are going to start to work already, salaries alone which will help - over $700,000 a month. So this will stimulate the local economy."

But, might it also stimulate a COVID outbreak? It is a risk - and to mitigate that, yesterday 462 COVID tests were administered to employers and investors.

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"All 365 rapid tests were negative and the PCR test we are awaiting for results, they told us in 3 or 5 days the most. It is very good news for us that out of all the test that were done yesterday, not one was positive."

Of course a test is just a snapshot and days to come will tell how well the measures have worked:

"How conscious are you as the CEO that you are walking on thin ice. The minister has indicated that should this effort see any re-introduction of Covid19 in the northern districts, basically the freezone will close down again."

Neri Ramirez, CEO - Free Zone
"We have to follow what the ministry is recommending. At the end of the day we have to protect our employees, our investors and our visitors - if we have close it down, we have to close it down."

Stores open from 8:00 to 6:00 in respect of the curfew.

As you heard, the Zone expects to be fully up to speed with all 250 companies operational by then.

Channel 7