MEXICO CITY – Perhaps one of the most heated debates in Mexico during the pandemic — after disagreements about personal protective equipment and testing — is the burning issue of whether beer should be considered an “essential” item during the lockdown.
“Beer supplies should be guaranteed, because beer helps people get through quarantine on better terms,” the National Alliance of Small Business said in a press statement Tuesday.
After Mexico ordered the closure of most “non-essential” industries in late March, including the country’s major breweries, the prospect of a looming shortage of brew turned into a heated disagreement within the government.
First, on April 6, the Agriculture Department sent a letter to major breweries that could be read as inviting them to restart production.
That drew a swift rebuke from the government’s coronavirus point man, assistant health secretary Hugo López-Gatell.
“All I can say is that this was a mistake and it’s going to be corrected,” López-Gatell said of the letter. “There are general orders from health authorities suspending all work activities except the essential ones, which are clearly spelled out in the Health Council’s decree of March 31, and they do not include the production or distribution of beer.”
The very next day, the Agriculture Department issued a statement saying it had never meant to authorize re-opening the breweries. Instead, the department said, it was only trying to encourage breweries to keep buying Mexican farmers’ barley crops.
“The Agriculture Department’s role in this case, is clearly to encourage the industry to buy the crop, because farmers don’t have the capacity to store the grain,” the department said.
The beer industry chamber, while it declined to comment on the debate, is pushing the idea of home delivery of existing stocks of suds. Some breweries have taken advantage of their unused plants to produce hand-sanitizer, or have made other contributions to hospitals.
But the business chamber representing Mexico's smaller craft brewers said a survey suggest 45% of small brewers think they could go under if the lock-down lasts 3 months.
The government’s strict stance also isn’t convincing the small business chamber, which said that 40% of small shops' total sales volume is beer.
“At this time of social isolation and unbearable heat, the demand for beer is more than obvious, and it also makes staying at home more bearable,” the association said. “Living together all day for a month will have consequences, and in this context the consumption of beer at home acts as a relaxing substance.”
“Forced to live crowded together at home with high temperatures and small spaces make it harder to comply with the quarantine, which along with the (hot) seasonal effect makes consumption of beer essential as a refreshing and relaxing beverage.”
Sergio Soto, who runs a tiny store packed-to-the-gills with household essentials, including beer, in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood, said Wednesday he was worried about the breweries stopping production.
Sparkling fridges packed with Grupo Modelo's most popular brands line one wall and he said beer was a significant portion of his daily sales.
He buys beer at Mexico City's sprawling wholesale market, but said there wasn't a fixed price. He estimated that he already had to pay as much as 40% more for beer wholesale since the production stoppage was announced. He worried that wholesalers would try to take advantage of the situation to gouge small retailers like himself.
He asked how he would be able to sell beer to his customers if his suppliers kept raising the price.
“It affects us,” he said. “I'm worried.”
AP writer Christopher Sherman contributed to this report.