Swine flu fears won't stop Cinco de Mayo celebrations

Fatima Rosas
Fatima Rosas, right, prepares a wire transfer for Pedro Bautista, left, of Cottage Grove. Because she interacts with customers on a daily basis, Rosas decided to start wearing a face mask after hearing about the global swine flu outbreak that originated in her native country of Mexico.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Organizers of some large-scale events around the Twin Cities this weekend are moving forward with plans despite concerns about the H1N1 flu outbreak.

Public health officials have not advised canceling any of events because of the outbreak, but they are telling people to take common sense precautions.

Anayeli Leon
Anayeli Leon, 20, works at La Guadalupana supermarket in St. Paul's Westside. Leon says she's not overly concerned about the flu outbreak, but worries that Mexicans living in the Twin Cities are being blamed for the spread of the virus.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Nowhere is the sense of caution more acute than in St. Paul's westside, where the annual Cinco de Mayo festivities kick off tonight.

Along Cesar Chavez Street in St. Paul's westside is a small grocery store, and 20-year-old Anayeli Leon is scanning some items for a customer. The store manager is nearby, stocking shelves with Mexican sodas and snacks in preparation for this weekend's Cinco de Mayo festivities.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Leon says most people coming into the store are talking about the swine flu outbreak. Officials believe the epidemic has roots in Mexico, the home country of many of the expected participants. But she doesn't think the threat is big enough to spoil the festivities in St. Paul this weekend.

"There's no need to be so alarmed," Leon said. "That's just going to get everyone even more scared. I feel like, yes, we need to be careful, but let's not exaggerate the threat for now."

What Leon does worry about is that Mexican immigrants will be blamed for the spread of the disease in the United States.

"People might think that because we're Mexican -- even though we've been here for a long time -- that we have the flu, or that we're more vunerable to getting it," she said. "I feel like people are looking at us like that."

Organizers say the threat of the H1N1 flu wasn't large enough to cancel the annual festivities.

Brian Gioielli is one of the coordinators of the event. He said he's been working with officials at the Minnesota Department of Health to make sure the street party is healthy and safe for everyone.

"We're not hearing that there's any need for concern at our event or any other event, or in people's everyday life," Gioielli said. "People should follow the general rules on what to do if you're sick, but other than that, there isn't a reason not to come to Cinco de Mayo. We hope that a lot of people do."

The two-day event starts Friday evening, with a car show and musical entertainment. On Saturday, the day-long festivities include a parade, food vendors and musical acts. Gioielli said he expects the event will draw about 100,000 people.

Emergency planners with the City of St. Paul met this week to discuss the festivities. Officials said they're concerned about the large gathering that may include people who have recently been in Mexico. But, they decided to advise only regular precautions, and they're not handing out masks or limiting any activities.

Earlier this week, the Department of Health issued a statement supporting the Cinco de Mayo events. Department officials will be at the festival distributing information and answering questions related to the flu outbreak.

Gioielli said there will be 25 hand-washing stations set up throughout the streets in the District Del Sol neighborhood, where the event is taking place.

"We take safety and all those things into account every year," Gioielli said.

Other events around the Twin Cities will also go on as planned, including a May Day march and rally along Lake Street in Minneapolis tonight.

The threat of the H1N1 flu epidemic has caused officials in Chicago, Milwaukee and other parts of the country to cancel Cinco de Mayo events this weekend. And organizers of immigration rights rallies are prepared for smaller crowds, too.

The idea of large crowds is exactly what's keeping some St. Paul residents like Fatima Rosas from attending any events this weekend.

The 29-year-old said she plans to keep her family indoors as much as possible.

The family started wearing surgical masks around town after officials confirmed cases of the flu in the U.S., and Rosas said she has an 8-month-old daughter who she doesn't want to expose to a lot of people.

"People look at me like I'm crazy. Like, what's wrong with this woman?" Rosas said. "But, honestly, I rather have them look at me and think I'm crazy than get sick in a few days."