(Updates with GM comments, coronavirus cases and death toll)
By Drazen Jorgic and Raul Fernandez
MEXICO CITY, May 18 (Reuters) - Mexico issued guidelines on Monday for restarting operations in the automotive, mining and construction sectors, pushing ahead with reopening the economy despite a growing national toll from the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about unsafe work sites.
With Mexico’s coronavirus death toll having surged past 5,300, and with 51,633 known cases, officials are wrestling with how to restart key industries without triggering a greater spread of the highly contagious respiratory virus.
The moves to loosen restrictions follow growing pressure from the United States to reopen factories that are vital to supply chains of U.S.-based businesses, especially in the vast automotive sector.
Mexico’s reopening plans have drawn criticism from some politicians worried that the still-rising pandemic tide in Latin America makes it unsafe to send more people to work.
Mexico’s guidelines, published overnight, require companies to submit to authorities health protocols for exiting the coronavirus lockdown. Firms will then be told within 72 hours if they can resume operations.
General Motors Co, which operates one of its most important plants in the city of Silao in central Mexico, told workers there to prepare to return to work on Wednesday. GM also told Mexican suppliers the company expected to comply quickly with the new regulations.
Activists composed of former GM workers called on Monday for an independent committee elected by workers to inspect the company’s plants for proper sanitary measures.
“We think they are measures that they are not really going to take seriously,” said Israel Cervantes, who says he was unjustly fired from the company last year after trying to create an independent union.
In a video sent to Silao employees, GM said workers would be spaced apart, screened for COVID-19 symptoms on entering each day and be given masks and glasses to be worn at all times.
In response to queries from Reuters, GM said its protocols were in line with or tougher than guidelines from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that Mexican authorities would be responsible for monitoring companies.
In the United States, the auto industry slowly returned to life on Monday, with some vehicle assembly plants reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, while suppliers geared up to support a sector that accounts for about 6% of U.S. economic activity.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said companies would have to answer an extensive questionnaire as part of efforts to protect workers.
“Today they can start doing the paperwork so that companies in the construction, transport and mining industries can start their activities, beginning with their health protocols,” Lopez Obrador told his daily news conference.
The government said the guidelines would lead to a gradual reopening that follows a so-called traffic light system put in place by authorities.
Some 300 municipalities with no coronavirus cases and bordering others with no cases - called “municipalities of hope” - were also due to start lifting the lockdown on Monday, although Mexican media reported some states did not allow the relaxation.
Last Tuesday, Mexico reported a record number of deaths in a single day, with 353 fatalities. That grim news was followed on Friday by a reported 2,437 new coronavirus infections, a one-day record rise in cases since the start of the pandemic.
A poll by newspaper Reforma showed on Monday that 67% of Mexicans believed the worst of the pandemic was still to come, while only 20% thought the worst was over. The poll surveyed 400 adults from last Tuesday to Thursday. (Reporting by Sharay Angulo, Raul Cortes Fernandez and Daina Beth Solomon; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Tom Brown, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)