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US and Mexico agree to limit non-essential travel across border to curb coronavirus spread

Mexico and the U.S. announced Friday they will sharply limit travel over their busy shared border as they try to control the spread of the coronavirus.

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Mexico and the U.S. announced Friday they will sharply limit travel over their busy shared border as they try to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said his government and the Trump administration have agreed to a plan that would prohibit recreational and tourist travel, similar to the restrictions put in place earlier this week along the U.S. and Canadian border.

There would be no ban on people traveling for work or other essential activities and there would be no halt to commercial traffic, Ebrard said. It wasn't immediately clear when the restrictions would take effect.

“Everyone else is not expected to have any difficulties," he added. "We're not talking about closing it.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf made the announcement during a White House press conference Friday.

"The United States and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travels across our shared border. Both our countries know the importance of working together to limit the spread of the virus," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

"We'll continue to maintain a strong supply chain across our border," Wolf said.

By excluding commercial traffic from the ban, the two governments substantially softened the economic effects. Fewer Americans are also heading south because of a statewide stay-at-home order in California and a State Department warning advising Americans not to travel abroad.

Still, the restrictions are a major development along the world's most heavily crossed border.

Wolf told reporters at the White House that the restrictions were aimed at eliminating non-essential travel across that border.

“We want to make sure that cargo continues, trade continues, heath care workers continue to be able to traverse that border. But tourism, some recreational activities and other things needs to stop during this crisis," he said.

Ebrard said Thursday he proposed steps to Pompeo that “won't paralyze economic activity and keep the border open to commerce and work.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials briefed business leaders Thursday on the plans to prohibit non-essential travel with Mexico, said Paola Avila, chair of the Border Trade Alliance, a business group.

U.S. officials provided a long list of “essential” workers that would be unaffected going to and from their jobs, including farm workers, restaurant and grocery store employees and bus drivers, said Avila. Mexico was preparing similar restrictions on visitors from the United States.

Keeping trade flowing, as the U.S. and Canada agreed to do, contains the economic damage. Mexico is the U.S.'s largest trading partner, just ahead of Canada. The U.S. accounts for about 75% of Mexican exports, including autos, computers and medical devices.

While halting travel for students, shoppers, families and many workers would be a major blow to border economies, the impact has already been felt.

The State Department on Thursday issued a new travel alert urging Americans not to go abroad under any circumstances and to return home if they are already abroad unless they plan to remain overseas. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state's 40 million residents to stay at home, restricting nonessential movements.

“People are not crossing anyway,” said Avila, who is also the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce vice president for international business affairs. This is the right thing to do. If you don’t have to cross, don’t.”

The U.S. has also been considering whether to immediately turn back to Mexico anyone who crosses the border illegally, including asylum-seekers. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he planned to announce such a measure “very soon,” relying on a law that says he can deny entry to people or reject cargo if the U.S. surgeon general determines there is a "serious danger" of bringing a communicable disease to the United States.