López-Gatell was photographed over the weekend at what appears to be an oceanfront restaurant in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the tourist-friendly beach town of Zipolite. The images quickly went viral on social media.
He can be seen sharing a table with a woman. He is not wearing a mask, which is not required while seated in restaurants allowed to be open.
Another viral photo from a few days earlier also showed López-Gatell in an airplane aisle using his cell phone, his mask pulled down below his nose and chin.
Traveling throughout Mexico is largely unrestricted at the moment, so the deputy health minister did nothing illegal by traveling, though he flouted his own guidance and that of local officials.
Many in Mexico are livid at the apparent hypocrisy of the Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist, whose message of Quédate en casa, or Stay at Home, has become a household phrase. Since the start of the pandemic, López-Gatell has held nightly press conferences widely broadcast in Mexico, in which he urges people to properly wear masks and practice social distancing.
Online, people expressed anger that López-Gatell would travel at a time when medical personnel are under such strain. “When thousands of doctors haven’t seen their families in Mexico or have died, when tens of thousands of health professionals can’t dream of taking vacation, comes a photo,” wrote Xavier Tello, a Mexico City health policy analyst.
In hard-hit Mexico City, nearly 30 public hospitals report they have reached 100% percent capacity, while many others are approaching that mark. The metropolis returned to Red Alert, the country’s highest coronavirus warning indicator, more than two weeks ago. That forced many businesses to temporarily close amidst a mandate to cease all non-essential activity until at least Sunday. And yet the deputy health secretary traveled from Mexico City anyway.
A Mexican government source confirmed the authenticity of the photos. The Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment but López Gatell is expected to address the incident at a press conference Monday night at 8pm EST.
Newly confirmed deaths and cases have risen steadily throughout the country since early October, with recent daily numbers some of the highest of the pandemic. More than 127,000 people have been killed by the virus.
Asked about Lopez Gatell’s travels, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said reporters should direct those questions to the deputy secretary but appeared to justify the trip.
“He has been working extremely hard, he has been fulfilling his responsibilities,” said López Obrador. “It’s good there is such public scrutiny, but public servants have rights too.”