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Calexico police recently shut down two duty-free stores in the city for operating as nonessential businesses due to the fact they were primarily selling beer to Mexicali residents. Beer is almost impossible to find in Mexico after government officials there halted all domestic production of cerveza a month ago due to the COVID pandemic. COURTESY PHOTO

UPDATED May 9: ‘No Hay Cerveza’ for Mexicali Residents Looking to Calexico Duty-Free Shops for Their Fix

With cerveza supplies tapped out in Mexico due to COVID-related measures enacted by the government, Mexicali residents appear to be looking to Calexico to fill their needs.

If they want duty-free beer, however, they’ll have to look elsewhere.

Calexico police shut down the UETA and Baja duty-free stores this week and access to their inexpensive supply of alcohol, cigarettes and perfume for being open but “nonessential” businesses, Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said May 7.

“Beer is not essential,” Gerardo said, and duty-free stores are not selling water or food.

Gerardo went into the UETA Duty Free on May 6 and wanted to see the “bread, milk, eggs, etc.” but was only shown a “five-pound bag of European chocolates, gum, mints, and potato chips … not really essential.”

“Several times we’ve asked them to close for being nonessential businesses,” Gerardo said, adding officers closed Baja Duty Free near Third Street and Imperial Avenue on May 4.

Officers went to UETA near Second Street and Imperial a day later when police saw trucks unloading several pallets of Tecate Light beer at the store, with a sign posted that stated, “No beer.”

The issue, Gerardo said, is Mexicali residents are coming into Calexico to buy beer at the duty-free stores and returning to Mexico, which the chief called “reckless” and potentially aiding in the spread of COVID within their own communities ahead of the Mother’s Day weekend.

Gerardo said his officers approached UETA employees off-loading the beer May 5, and his officers were presented with a letter on UETA corporate stationary declaring the chain, which operates locations in San Ysidro in San Diego County, as an “essential business” by San Ysidro-area Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, D-80th.

But after speaking with Imperial County Public Health Deputy Director Jeff Lamoure, Gerardo and Lamoure agreed that UETA and the duty-free shops in Calexico do not fit the definition of “essential businesses.”

Cellphone video shot in Mexicali and shared widely on Facebook, including to this newspaper, shows hundreds of cars waiting to cross into Calexico on the afternoon of May 8, presumably to buy beer, according to the narration.

While it is not illegal to consume alcohol in Mexico during the pandemic, Mexicali residents are under stay-at-home orders and government health officials in Mexico halted beer production and declared brewing a “nonessential” activity more than a month ago.

Since then, the stockpile of beer in the country has become nearly nonexistent. Although some Mexican breweries continue to produce cerveza for the lucrative U.S. export market, beer is not being brewed for domestic consumption.   

“Mexicans like to drink beer,” Cuauhtémoc Rivera, director the National Alliance of Small Merchants, or Anpec, said in an article on the Guardian website May 7. Anpec represents smaller-sized retailers in the country.

Rivera told the Guardian that the businesses he represents are run by families, and during hot weather, beer sales make up about 40 percent of sales.

Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo says “beer is not essential” in his decision to close duty-free stores in the city. COURTESY PHOTO

“This is a big money-maker for small stores,” he said.

Anpec told the Guardian it has lobbied for brewing to be declared an essential activity, arguing that it would help people cope with COVID-19 clampdowns.

“States of anxiety, desperation and fears that could end in episodes of irascibility and intolerance” are inevitable during stay-in-place orders, Anpec has argued. “The consumption of beer at home operates as (a) relaxant, which helps with enduring a difficult trial,” the Anpec statement continued.

Meanwhile, in Calexico …

“It’s reckless to allow people just to come over here to buy beer and go home and have celebrations,” Chief Gerardo said, implying alcohol-fueled gatherings might exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus in Mexicali and thereby affect local COVID conditions.

Calexico already has the highest number of COVID-positive cases in Imperial County by zip code at 124 total cases as of May 7. Mexicali had 815 confirmed cases of COVID and 205 cases pending confirmation, also as of May 7.

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