Puerto Vallarta is known for its party-heavy New Year's Eve events that fill the streets with revelers from all over the world. This year, however, the city had officially canceled and banned New Year's Eve events and gatherings of any kind. But revelers would not be denied.
Despite the state of Jalisco's efforts to shut down New Year's Eve gatherings, the tourists of Puerto Vallarta still found ways to party. On Dec. 21, Jalisco's governor, Enrique Alfaro Ramirez, announced that the state would implement updates to its Covid-19 recovery plan, including the shuttering of all bars and nightclubs at 7 p.m. from Dec. 25 through Jan. 10. But skirting the rules, it turns out, was pretty easy to do, and skirt the rules revelers did.
"If I'm being honest, it was pretty out of control," said Zach Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, which is based in Puerto Vallarta. "It's hard to put that into context. The overwhelming majority of our establishments are implementing and carrying out the protocols of limited capacity, sanitizing gel and face masks. You can't go into places without a mask on. That is all happening. [New Year's Eve] was a mess."
While establishments did cancel the parties that were meant to be held in Puerto Vallarta proper, party organizers found ways to circumvent the new rules, including moving parties to the neighboring state of Nayarit, which had a different set of regulations in place. Continuous shuttle buses were available from Puerto Vallarta's Zona Romantica up to the parties. And while complimentary masks for all were advertised, social media photos of the events show that their wearing was not enforced.
Without the rules being broken specifically in Puerto Vallarta, authorities were unable to act.
"Local authorities in Puerto Vallarta were aware of all planned events and remained prepared to respond in a timely manner in the event that any activity took place in opposition to local mandates," a statement from the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board read. Still, while the city's hotels are operating at 75% capacity, and restaurants and bars operating at 50% capacity, the beaches and the destination in general is open for business as usual.
"This is a dyke with a hole in it," added Rabinor. "People are looking for places to blow off steam. Places like Puerto Vallarta's Zona Romantica, Sayulita and Tulum, these are millennial party places. They don't care and they want to party, so they are finding the places where they can do it and are pushing those places beyond what they are even allowing."
Rabinor added, however, that Mexico has made the decision to remain open to tourism, without restriction, because they have to. "We do not have the resources to shut down the economy. We don't have stimulus checks or welfare, so do you shut local business owners and workers in their homes to starve?"
Which begs the question, can there be a balance? Can there be a way to keep the economy going but also keep risk low? That has been the goal all along with the health and safety protocols. But as much as a destination and its establishments can play by the rules, tourists have to follow suit, and enforcement of the rules has to be a part of that.
"What we're seeing is a pent-up demand for travel from the whole world," he said. "Mexico is one of those places you can go. When you go there, you know you're taking risks."
These are the same risks anyone would face traveling anywhere in the world and gathering in groups, Rabinor explained.
"Traveling during a pandemic is a personal choice," he said. "It depends on your own sense of risk and your own comfort level."
It's hard to say what the short- and long-term effects of the New Year's Eve parties will be. A spike in cases is expected, both back in the United States, but also among the locals who stay behind. That said, Puerto Vallarta is reporting that its Covid-19 numbers are still manageable. As of Jan. 9, the New York Times is reporting the state of Jalisco has had 55,162 reported cases, with 395 in the past seven days. Despite reports that the hospitals in Puerto Vallarta are overwhelmed, the destination said that the Regional Hospital is at 30% capacity and the Covid-19 unit equipped with ventilators is at 62% capacity.
This story was updated to make it clearer that Zach Rabinor was speaking of risks travelers to any destination, not just Mexico, might face.