RIVERA, Uruguay – A resounding “no” is the reaction of food stand owner Paco when he sees reporters approaching, though he subsequently acknowledges that he, like most merchants in this town on the border with Brazil, has seen sales plummet by up to 90 percent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The border bisects a public space, International Plaza, and residents on either side of the boundary live a “bi-national” life with “Portuñol” (Portugues-Español) the unofficial lingua franca.
This week, Rivera’s merchants saw an already bleak situation take a turn for the worse with the Uruguayan government’s order to close the tax-free shops that make up almost all of the town’s retail sector.
The decision is sure to reduce if not eliminate the southward flow of Brazilians across the border to do their shopping in Rivera.
Currency-exchange kiosks share the square with stands offering shirts of Spanish soccer giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with those of Uruguay’s big two, Nacional and Peñarol.
In most shops, prices are listed in both Brazilian reais and Uruguayan pesos.
Sales “have dropped quite a bit” at her stand featuring leather goods, handicrafts and souvenirs, Graciela Moro Campos says.
“We remain in the fight. You have to keep going. Take care of yourself and keep going,” she tells EFE. “We sell to both countries and the customers are Uruguayans and Brazilians. We sold quite a bit on weekends, holidays, and now we are limited.”
Mora Campos, a Uruguayan who works on the Brazilian side of the border, does not hide her unhappiness with the order from Montevideo to shut down the “free shops” through April 12.
“They have to let us work. We take all the precautions. You see that there is no question of an agglomeration here, it’s open and ventilated and has all the precautions,” she says.
Sitting next door to Brazil, which is second only to the United States in coronavirus deaths and No. 3 globally in the number of cases, the Rivera area leads Uruguay in the incidence of infections per 100,000 inhabitants.
Cesar, who declines to give his last name or be photographed, tells EFE that he has spent the last 25 years selling kites and seasonal items in Rivera.
His receipts have fallen roughly 80 percent in the last few months.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he says, before leaving his sister to mind the kite stand so he can check on one of his other businesses.
A man named Jesus, whose 40-year-old establishment on International Plaza is known for what his loyal patrons describe as the region’s best hot dogs, projects an air of serenity in the face of the current troubles.
“I am well, thank God, because God doesn’t let you lack for anything,” he says.
His business has not suffered during the pandemic, Jesus says, crediting his adherence to the Biblical maxim “you reap what you sow.”
Jesus, already a great-grandfather, says he has no thought of giving up his stand selling hot dogs enlivened by a mix of mayonnaise, tomato sauce and “special” pesto “until God decides.”