Airline refutes Mexican authority's account of spring break coronavirus outbreak

By Daina Beth Solomon

By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - College students from Texas who tested positive for the novel coronavirus after spring break in Los Cabos traveled to the Mexican beach resort on Viva Aerobus, the airline said, and were there a week later than reported by the local tourist board.

At least part of the Texas group stayed at the luxury Pueblo Bonito Los Cabos hotel, two people familiar with the arrangements told Reuters.

So far 49 students among the group from University of Texas at Austin have tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return to the United States, according to the university.

Austin city officials initially confirmed 28 cases from the group on March 31.

While the outbreak has led to speculation that coronavirus may be more prevalent in Mexico than official numbers reveal, it is still not clear where the students became infected.

The Los Cabos Tourism Board has suggested the timeline of the visit by the students means they would have presented symptoms earlier if they had caught the virus in Mexico.

The tourism board said it was informed by the Los Cabos airport that the last spring break charter flight to Austin departed on March 11.

However, Mexican airline Viva Aerobus told Reuters the students departed Austin on March 14 and returned on March 19, the same dates the University of Austin said 211 students went to Los Cabos.

In a statement, Viva Aerobus said the university notified them that some students had tested positive 12 days after the return flight. COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and there is evidence it can be spread asymptomatically.

Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the tourism board, acknowledged the board may not have complete information.

"The university has not reached out to us... in order to provide us with information and really know about a specific group. Without that, it has been difficult," he said in an interview.

Esponda said 15 cases of coroanvirus have been registered in Los Cabos, none of them hotel workers. The state overall has registered 21 cases, with the country's total reaching 1,688.

Viva Aerobus said it has followed strict sanitary measures to prevent infection on its routes.

No passengers showed symptoms during the flights to and from Los Cabos, Viva Aerobus added. After the notification from the University of Texas, the airline said it pulled its crew from duty and put them under observation.

None of them have thus far presented symptoms of the coronavirus.


"SLIGHT CONCERN"

At least some of the University of Texas group stayed at the Pueblo Bonito Los Cabos resort, according to a guest who was at the hotel with them, and another student who had planned to travel but pulled out before the trip.

In response to a question from Reuters, Pueblo Bonito said it did not have information on the matter. JusCollege, a company that organized the trip for most of the University of Texas students, as well as its parent firm Pollen, did not respond to requests for comment.

The University of Texas said 178 students participated in the trip with JusCollege, while another 33 students made arrangements separately.

Jack McColl, a traveler who used to work for JusCollege and was in Los Cabos at the time of the University of Texas trip, said some participants showed "a slight concern" over the coronavirus.

"Many knew it was a serious threat but since cases in Mexico were minimal at the time, the party still continued," he told Reuters. "Social distancing was not practiced, but as little human contact as possible was."

He added that JusCollege made hand sanitizer mandatory before entering one of the main dining areas, and that JusCollege posted signs telling students to wash their hands.

"They were proactive about it for sure," he said.

Andres Ramon, a bartender at Pueblo Bonito said his bar attended to about 100 U.S. students at a time, said he did not think the Texas group picked up the virus in Mexico, noting hotel employees are still healthy.

"I feel like something would have happened to me, and I don't even have a cold," he said.

Still, he noted attitudes has since changed at the hotel, which now has no guests and has sent employees in shifts to do cleaning and maintenance.

"We weren't scared until now, with cases are appearing in other states," Ramon said. "Now we're really taking precautions."


(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, additional reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)