Kisses, hugs of greeting endure in Mexico despite virus fears

By Anthony Esposito and Abraham Gonzalez
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Kisses, hugs of greeting endure in Mexico despite virus fears

FILE PHOTO: Women embrace outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

By Anthony Esposito and Abraham Gonzalez

ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexicans are finding it difficult to shake the habit of greeting friends, family and even strangers with a handshake, hug or kiss on the cheek despite warnings they could spread coronavirus, with the practice on display at a major banking conference.

At the annual gathering this week in the seaside resort of Acapulco, a couple of bankers, old friends, embraced after a brief back and forth discussion on what was the right way to greet one another.

"Just in case this is the last time," one of them joked.

The coronavirus has infected more than 129,140 people around the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,750. But Mexico appears so far largely unscathed and has confirmed only 16 cases and no deaths.

Mexico's Finance Minister Arturo Herrera has argued that because the disease is taking longer to spread in the country, it gives the government time to better organise a policy response.

In the absence of a more visible impact and drastic measures, like quarantines imposed in Italy and travel bans imposed by the United States, it appeared "social distancing" was not yet a priority for many, including the president.

"Look, this whole thing about the coronavirus that you can't hug. You have to hug, nothing is going to happen," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week at his daily press conference. "Like this," he said, putting his arms over his shoulders as if he were hugging himself.

Still, awareness is spreading.

Conference organizers set up tables, stocked with hand sanitizers, along hallways, while hostesses offered hand gel and signs detailed the sanitary measures.

Luis Esteve, who heads the Union of Mexican Financial Institutions think tank, said he decided to avoid unnecessary physical contact after seeing drastic measures in other parts of the world and hearing the World Health Organization refer to the outbreak as a pandemic.

"Latinos, we're affectionate ... and people think, 'How sad that we can't greet one another,'" said Esteve, adding that it is better to be cautious under the circumstances.

But old habits die hard.

"In these type of events suddenly you bump into someone that you haven't seen, a friendly face, and you forget about the whole issue," he said. Moments later, an old acquaintance showed up and they hugged.


(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Abraham Gonzalez; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)