Imagine Dr. Fauci heading to a beach in Miami for some vacation right now.
That’s how some Mexicans are describing the actions of Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, a deputy secretary of health and the leading public face of the Mexican government’s coronavirus response.
López-Gatell was photographed over the weekend at what appears to be an oceanfront restaurant in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the tourist-friendly beach town of Zipolite. The images quickly went viral on social media.
A Mexican government source has confirmed the authenticity of the photos.
In them, López-Gatell can be seen sharing a table with a woman. He is not wearing a mask, which is not required while seated in restaurants allowed to be open. Another viral photo from a few days earlier also showed him in an airplane aisle using his cell phone, his mask pulled down below his nose and chin.
Traveling throughout Mexico is largely unrestricted at the moment, so the deputy health minister did nothing illegal by traveling, though he flouted his own guidance and that of local officials.
Many in Mexico are livid at the apparent hypocrisy of the Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist, whose message of Quédate en casa, or Stay at Home, has become a household phrase. Since the start of the pandemic, López-Gatell has held nightly press conferences widely broadcast in Mexico, in which he urges people to properly wear masks and practice social distancing.
Online, people expressed anger that López-Gatell — who last week urged Twitter followers,“…to prevent infections, please stay at home” — would travel at a time when medical personnel are under intense strain. “When thousands of doctors haven’t seen their families in Mexico or have died, when tens of thousands of health professionals can’t dream of taking vacation, comes a photo,” wrote Xavier Tello, a Mexico City health policy analyst.
Asked about the trip at a press conference on Monday, López-Gatell said, “I have nothing to hide. I simply went to the coast of Oaxaca … And I went to visit close relatives, very good friends, and we were in a very private home during those days.”
Sitting in front of a sign that read “Quédate en casa,” he told journalists that the restaurant where he was seen at was following public health rules and noted that the gravity of Covid-19 varies between states.
López-Gatell himself lives in hardest-hit Mexico City, where nearly 30 public hospitals report they have reached 100% percent capacity, and many others are approaching that mark. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has urged residents to not go out unless absolutely necessary.
The metropolis returned to Red Alert, the country’s highest coronavirus warning indicator, more than two weeks ago. That forced many businesses to temporarily close amidst a mandate to cease all non-essential activity until at least Sunday.
López-Gatell’s actions over the weekend could undermine the lessons that he and other health authorities preached for months, and come at an especially fraught time in the country’s pandemic.
Newly confirmed deaths and cases have risen steadily throughout the country since early October, with recent daily numbers some of the highest of the pandemic. More than 127,000 people have been killed by the virus.
Asked about Lopez Gatell’s travels, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said reporters should direct those questions to the deputy secretary but appeared to justify the trip.
“He has been working extremely hard, he has been fulfilling his responsibilities,” said López Obrador. “It’s good there is such public scrutiny, but public servants have rights too.”
The president, who himself has traveled and rarely wears a mask, has faced widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic from the beginning.