CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - This nation is far from flattening the COVID-19 curve, but thousands of maquiladora employees are set to return to work after the government caved in to intense pressure from the Trump administration to ramp up production and restart the supply chain deemed critical for North America's economy.

The target date for reopening is June 1, although some officials say work may begin as early as Monday. The massive, multibillion-dollar international supply chain - which connects cities across Mexico and the U.S. - stretches across one of the hardest COVID-19 hit border regions: El Paso and Juarez.

The symbiotic cities, wary of one another over the rising number of coronavirus cases, have not met federal or state guidelines from their own governments for making progress against the virus before reopening. Officials on both sides of the border are warning that moving too fast could raise the risk of more outbreaks and further devastate the mostly U.S.-owned maquilas, the factories that are the backbone of the supply chain and the local economy.

Mexico, which began reopening in three phases this week, has reported at least 60,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 6,500 confirmed deaths. Juarez's coronavirus death toll dramatically rose Friday by 24 to 196.

"I trust in the conscience and responsibility of our managers in the maquiladora industry of exportation," said Chihuahua state Gov. Javier Corral, who also called for rapid testing of employees. "First, because I know them, second, because I don't believe that they mean to gamble and risk an infection ... As factories reopen, there will be cases of contagion, without a doubt. But we don't want an outbreak."

But many health experts are rattled by the thought of a hasty return to normal. International health expert Dr. Alejandro Diaz warned that reopening the maquilas at the height of a pandemic will lead to "chaos ... catastrophic consequences."

That's because many health experts believe the real number of cases and deaths is much higher in the border city of about 1.4 million people because of severely limited testing in the region. A report this week by the anti-corruption think tank Mexicanos Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad - Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity - claims the undercount in Mexico may be at least three or more times higher than has been reported in official statistics, challenging the government's official narrative.

Juarez alone is testing 0.5 or fewer percent of the population, said Diaz, who added that Mexico's death toll, including in Juarez, is "likely much, much higher" than what has been reported.

Across the Rio Grande, the sixth largest city in Texas saw the most new cases yet on Thursday, with five deaths. On Friday, the city added one more, so that 59 lives have been lost to COVID-19. There are 2,160 confirmed cases.

In a move to commemorate the class of 2020 and celebrate education, the University of Texas at El Paso lit the "Mining Minds" pick axe sculpture blue and orange.

Those numbers have led to a one-week delay in the second phase of El Paso's reopening after a lockdown. Hospitalizations are threatening hospital capacity. The city is testing an estimated 2.5% of its population.

Diaz questioned why, if the border region and industry workforce are so important, and "essential," not enough "protection protocol" - such as contact tracing - is in place to provide an "immune bubble to secure the safety of workers" many of whom commute across borderlines daily.

Top city economic officials in Juarez, while expressing reservations about reopening, say they have little choice but to move forward, insisting that Juarez is too big and too important to fail. They point to devastating economic losses, including more than 50,000 maquila jobs, that could lead to social unrest. They also see an opportunity to strategically position the Juarez-El Paso region as an alternative investment zone amid an intensifying U.S.-China feud that could bring jobs back to North America.

"I think we have a huge market that's integrated between the borders of Chihuahua, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas," said Alvaro Bustillos, CEO of Vaquero Trading and president of the Juarez Economic Development office, adding that Juarez's resilience has long been tested by organized crime. "We see huge investments from Asia coming down our way so we have to take advantage of the opportunity."

Bustillos also pushed back against claims from workers that many were infected inside maquilas, saying there is no proof of that. He added that employees need to be reminded "maquilas made a lot of dreams come true," moving people up the economic ladder.

About a dozen maquila employees were interviewed by The Dallas Morning News. Those interviews revealed that many are deeply anxious about returning to work, feeling despair over a looming economic disaster and resentful toward their employers because swifter action was not taken to save workers or acknowledge the deaths of their colleagues in a public way. The workers interviewed declined to speak on the record, for fear of retribution.

Most of the employees interviewed work for Michigan-based Lear Corp. whose global operations include a plant in Arlington. Lear, which prides itself as an industry innovative leader in reopening during a pandemic. The company has 10 plants in Juarez and employs 24,000 workers. More than 350,000 Juarez workers are employed in maquilas.

Monica Rosales, 26, is the daughter of Lear Rio Bravo maquila supervisor Raul Rosales, one of several employees who died from COVID-19. An El Pasoan, she remains in communication with colleagues of her late father across in Juarez.

"There's a lot of fear, but also a lot of need," she said. "I just hope companies are more careful with the lives and health of their workers ... They're human beings."

Some factories deemed essential never shut down in Juarez. This week, others began to admit workers for training about social distancing measures, facemask and other guidelines. Workers must even know how to walk in and exit separately from plants.

"This virus ... is here to stay, it's not disappearing," said Leticia Ruiz, subdirector of Preventive Medicine and Health Promotion in Chihuahua. "We'll have to change."

Outside Lear Rio Bravo this week, the old familiar rumbling of buses entering in and out roared.

"Right now, the entire maquiladora industry is in diapers," said a Lear supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the company. "Nobody is actually ready to start again."

He said Lear has paid management salaries in full while assembly workers are making 60% of their salaries. In some cases, less than $20 per week.

"Some of the people say, 'We do need to work, we need our income, our pockets are hurting,'" he said about Lear employees. "Contrastingly, there's fear of the infections out there, fear of contagion ... of the lack of medical attention."

Lear did not comment on the salary changes.

The supervisor has been under strict quarantine along with his family. He worries about workers crisscrossing the border daily, fearing they might be coming back into Mexico infected. He and others interviewed said the many colleagues who died weigh heavily on them.

"I've honestly lost the count," he said about the number of COVID-19 deaths in the maquiladora industry. "Easily, just in Lear, there have been some 30, 40 people who have died."

Lear has previously acknowledged several workers died from probable covid-19 symptoms.

Starting last Monday, May 18, through the first week of June, maquiladoras like that of Lear Corp. in Juarez have began preparing to go back into production. At Lear s Rio Bravo location, they have restructured the plant to follow distancing guidelines.

Late Thursday, a company spokesman said in a statement that "any facility reopening date will be at the determination of government regulations... Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our employees."

Chihuahua state health officials did not directly answer questions about the actual death toll in the maquila sector.

When asked whether there was any pressure from the U.S. to reopen the economy, Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, of the Chihuahua State Health Authority for the northern zone of Mexico, firmly said, "No."

U.S. pressure includes a letter signed by 300 American corporate chief executives in April imploring Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to reopen. And a tweet from the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, who usually uses Twitter to laud Mexico's tourist, cultural and foodie haunts.

"There are risks everywhere, but we don't all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident," Landau wrote. "The destruction of the economy is also a health threat."

This week, both governments also announced the U.S.-Mexico border will remain closed to "nonessential" travel through June, adding to the bleak economic outlook for both cities. Shoppers spend billions of dollars on both sides.

And as the economic toll from the virus rises, the border's old cat and mouse smuggling game has adapted to new times. Custom Border Protection announced Thursday that it is seeing a rise in the number of counterfeit or non-FDA compliant COVID-19 tests, hand sanitizer, facemasks, and mask filters crisscrossing the border.

"Some appear to be exploiting the pandemic for financial gain, leaving the consumer at risk," said CBP El Paso Director of Field Operations Hector Mancha.

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(Special contributor Olivares reported from Ciudad Juarez. Staff writer Corchado reported from El Paso.)

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