COCHISE COUNTY — Mayors in at least two Cochise County cities that directly border or are close to Mexico are hoping to reignite a group that would unite the local politicians with their Sonoran counterparts in order to jump-start commerce that was dealt a blow by pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 surfaced and began to wreak havoc, U.S. officials announced there would be a limit on “inbound land border crossings” from Canada and Mexico. It meant that anyone crossing into the U.S. from either of those two bordering countries could only do so for “essential travel.”
According to the U.S. Embassies and Consulates in Mexico website, that meant that individuals from Canada and Mexico were not allowed to come to the U.S. for “tourism purposes, such as sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events.”
That changed Tuesday when the Biden administration announced it would be lifting the travel restrictions imposed on both bordering countries sometime in November. Individuals crossing into the U.S. by land, however, will be required to show proof of vaccination, according to an article in Wednesday’s New York Times. That stipulation will not kick in until January in order to give people time to get their shots.
The travel restrictions, which dragged on for 19 months, affected commerce in both Sierra Vista and Douglas, both municipalities counting on shoppers from Sonora — especially Agua Prieta and Naco — who regularly frequented the cities’ stores. But such shopping trips and other similar outings, were considered non-essential by the U.S. government.
The spread of the pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions also halted a once-robust relationship between local mayors and their counterparts in the Mexican border towns, said Sierra Vista Mayor Rick Mueller. The cross border mayors met periodically to discuss issues of mutual concern, Mueller said.
Both Mueller and Douglas Mayor Don Huish, with the backing of Mexican Consul General Ricardo Pineda Albarran, are eager to once again forge relationships with their counterparts in Mexico. Mueller said earlier this week that he’s pleased that Sonorans crossing into Arizona will be required to show proof of vaccination.
The mayors say that merchants in their respective cities have reported a drop in revenues because residents from Sonora have not been allowed to cross the border for shopping trips.
A study done for Sierra Vista showed that 30% of the city’s credit card sales on the weekends were from transactions made by Sonorans shopping in the city.
“That’s a significant amount of revenue for the city in sales tax,” Mueller said. “It promotes that we’re trying to build friendships and commerce with our neighbors and help each other find our way with joint ventures.
“I will tell you that in the last two months I’ve seen three Sonoran license plates in town. On the weekends it used to be that about every other car had a Sonoran license plate. They (Sonorans) are coming back slowly but with COVID that’s going to take a little while.”
In Douglas, residents of Agua Prieta are allowed to cross the border for work and school, but shopping for pleasure is out of the question.
Huish said the travel restrictions have been especially harsh for the smaller businesses in the city.
“Our mom and pop stores have been cutting back on their employees and they’re running the businesses themselves,” Huish said. “Certain businesses that were open all week have now cut back their hours and are open maybe three or four days a week.”
Bisbee Mayor Ken Budge said he has not heard any complaints from shop owners in Bisbee concerning a lack of business from Sonoran residents. But Budge pointed out that Bisbee’s Main Street shopping district is geared more toward tourists rather than toward individuals shopping for everyday essential items.
He said he still sees cars with Sonoran license plates in the Safeway parking lot, for example, but is on board with joining the cross-border mayors group.
Huish, who was elected during the onslaught of COVID, said he has never attended a cross-border mayor’s meeting like Mueller has, but is eager to see the resurgence of a relationship between mayors on both sides of the border. Huish said aside from discussing commerce-related issues, he would like to share ideas and information regarding health and public safety with his Sonoran counterparts.
In an email to the Herald/Review on Tuesday, Pineda Albarran agreed with Mueller and Huish, saying that cross-border relationships are paramount.
“It’s an exceptional idea,” Pineda said. “It’s very important for mayors from both sides of the border to meet and talk about issues of mutual interest. It’s important for them to work on an agenda that focuses on cooperation and how we can facilitate regional economic growth.”
Pineda pointed out that a relationship between the governments is important because of the historic relationship between the two countries.
“Now more than ever we have to see ourselves as what we are — border governments, brothers and sisters cooperating before a multitude of challenges,” Pineda said.
The consul general said that trade between Sonora and Arizona has always been strong. He said both communities have always enjoyed familial and cultural ties.
“It’s imperative that we continue strengthening positive issues that will reinforce our relationship, and from there, propose more cooperation between our federal governments,” Pineda said. “We share several interests that impact our borders — commerce, education, culture, the environment, emergency situations, infrastructural concerns, natural resources and water, for example.
“I hope that such a meeting (between the border mayors) becomes a reality soon.”
Mueller said he realizes the pandemic will likely dictate how soon the cross-border mayors get together, but he hopes it happens soon after the start of the new year.