Saturday, August 8, 2020

Governor reinstates restrictions on social, recreational activities as Covid-19 cases soar

By on July 17, 2020

New executive order, valid until July 31, implements evening dry law; closes bars, entertainment businesses

SAN JUAN – With medical experts warning of a “rampant” increase in confirmed Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced announced Thursday the reinstating of a series of restrictions and prohibitions that mostly cover locations where socialization and recreational activities take place, including the implementation of an evening dry law, which take effect on Friday.

During a televised address alongside members of her Covid-19 medical task force, Vázquez announced she was issuing a new executive order that keeps the 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew in place and bans the sale of alcoholic beverages after 7 p.m.

In a release, the governor’s office said that “establishments that are mainly dedicated to the retail sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption inside or outside the premises, such as bars, cafes and any other similar place” are ordered closed through July 31. The governor had stressed that “under no circumstance will the crowding of people be allowed outside of authorized establishments.”

The executive order, which will be in effect until July 31, mandates the total closure of bars, discotheques, cinemas, concert halls, game centers, theaters, casinos, attraction parks, and gyms.

“The strategies implemented by the government have worked to protect lives and keep our health system working optimally. This has definitively permitted the health system to be prepared to face the fluctuations in positive cases of Covid-19 in an efficient manner. But we have reached a level in which we need to take more restrictive measures to minimize the spread and protect the health, wellbeing and lives of all of us who live in Puerto Rico.” the governor said in her message.

Vázquez noted that the new measures were decided in consultation with the medical and economic task forces, the secretaries of Health, State and Economic Development, as well as with the majority New Progressive Party-backed Mayors Federation and the opposition Popular Democratic Party-backed Mayors Association. In fact, a number of municipalities, including Puerto Rico’s two largest cities, San Juan and Bayamón, had already implemented many of these restrictions, including, in some cases, limiting visitors from outside town limits.

Crowding targeted

The executive order lowers the occupancy limit for restaurants and cafeterias from 75 percent to 50 percent, the governor said, noting that this measure was consulted with the Puerto Rico Restaurant Association (ASORE). She said that waiting lines will not be allowed outside these establishments and customers must make previous reservations or appointments, or order and pick up food servings in their automobiles.

Businesses with merchandise being sold through customer appointments or carry out methods will not be allowed to have people waiting in lines outside of the establishments, and customers must wait in their vehicles, Vázquez said.

The executive order prohibits the crowding of people outside of establishments that sell prepared food and alcoholic beverages.

“We ask the owners of these establishments to exercise their function… so that people do not remain [outside the establishment], and we also call on citizens to avoid this. In this way we avoid the crowding of people that can bring as a consequence the contagion of other citizens,” the governor said.

While the executive order allows individualized and non-contact sports and recreational training outside of curfew hours, it bans competitive activities, professional and non-professional, during the term of the executive order, Vázquez said.

Moreover, sunbathing, picnicking, socializing or bathing at the island’s beaches are prohibited, although “limited use of beaches,” requiring the use of face masks and physical distancing measures, is only allowed for joggers and walkers, surfers, divers, and users of paddleboards, sailboats, rowboats, the governor said, noting that the use of coolers and beach chairs will not be allowed.

Vázquez said that she ordered the closing of all marinas and banned the use of all water vessels, including jet skis, for recreational purposes. Personnel from the Puerto Rico Natural Resources Department and state and municipal police are authorized to enforce this ban, she said.

“The use of common areas such as swimming pools and bars will be prohibited. Hotels, hostels and inns that have access to beaches and bathing areas must ensure they are used according to the regulations established in the executive order,” she said, adding that “adventure and attraction tours” will not be allowed while the executive order is in place.

Concern over outbreaks within families

Vázquez said that due to reports of Covid-19 outbreaks within families on the island, family gatherings will be limited to those living under the same roof, stressing that any massive activities that include nonfamily members is banned during the term of the executive order. Visits to senior citizen homes and elderly care centers, as well as visits to jails and correctional facilities, have been canceled and postponed, she said.

“We have been informed of multiple outbreaks at family activities, where other people that are not from that family unit have been present. We should limit this activity to only those people who are in the family unit to avoid outside people coming in and infecting them, as we have seen in many municipalities,” the governor said.

Vázquez said that services provided by the Puerto Rico Maritime Transportation Authority will be exclusively for residents and workers in Vieques and Culebra, while transportation of visitors to these island municipalities has been banned during the duration of the executive order, noting that this measure was requested by the towns’ mayors.

To reinforce response and mitigation efforts against the potentially deadly novel coronavirus, the governor announced that an additional $100 million will be disbursed to municipalities for assistance to diagnostic and treatment centers (CDTs for its Spanish initials), remote work programs, and aid to needy communities.

Moreover, private hospitals will be assigned an additional $150 million to ensure they can meet the increasing Covid-19 treatment demand as well as to “guarantee” the treatment of patients with chronic conditions, she said.

Governor seeks ban on flights from hotspot states

Vázquez said that anyone planning to visit or return to Puerto Rico should log onto the commonwealth’s Travel Safe online site (https://travelsafe.pr.gov) and complete a Travelers Declaration document before arriving at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMM).

“The daily flow of these passengers will be revised,” she said, noting that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved a government petition to again reroute all overseas flights to arrive at LMM for better virus screening of passengers.

Another executive order issued by the governor went into effect Wednesday requiring arriving passengers to present a negative Covid-19 molecular test taken at least 72 hours before the flight, and which they must report to the Health Department’s online Situational Awareness and Response Assistant (SARA). Passengers arriving without a positive test result will be required to quarantine for 14 days, during which they must report their condition to the agency. Those who do not follow this protocol face fines and up to six months in jail, according to executive order 2020-052.

Nonetheless, Health Secretary Lorenzo González reportedly acknowledged that the process would only cover a portion of passengers arriving to the island, he said would serve as a “sampling” of this population for the agency to follow. Puerto Rico National Guard Brig. Gen. Miguel Méndez, in charge of Covid-19 screening at the airports, reportedly said that only 5 percent of arriving passengers have filled out the Health Department forms.

Epidemiologists have expressed concern that the virus epidemic could worsen on the island if proper controls are not placed on passengers arriving mostly from U.S. hotspots such as Florida and Texas, which have seen a record amount of Covid-19 cases and deaths this past week and which have large populations of Puerto Ricans.

In fact, Vázquez said on Thursday that the commonwealth had made a formal petition to the FAA to ban flights from Florida and Texas, which has yet to be granted.

Tourism campaign postponed

The planned marketing campaign to attract overseas tourists to Puerto Rico that had been scheduled to start on Wednesday was postponed until August 15, the governor said, noting that she ordered the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and the Discover Puerto Rico destination marketing organization to launch a media campaign informing potential visitors to the island that priority will be given to essential travel to the island.

The Puerto Rico Health Department will be hiring additional personnel to work in the SARA Alert system, including the tracking of arriving passengers who must go into quarantine, Vázquez said, stressing that all arriving passengers, including returning Puerto Ricans, must register in SARA.

All visitors must bring a negative Covid-19 test and use a face mask, and go into quarantine if requested, the governor said.

“Hotels assume the responsibility for the use of face masks by its guests,” she said.

“Covid has not gone away, it is with us. It is living with our fellow citizens. We have to do our part and effort. It is an individual responsibility,” the governor said, stressing that people below the age of 30 constituted the bulk of the recent sharp increase in Covid-19 cases. “I call on all young people, those who have the right to enjoy but also have a great responsibility to protect their parents, grandparents, friends and siblings, to use protection measures. You must use face masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. It is the only way we have to protect ourselves. It is the only way we have to save our lives and of our loved ones.”

She added: “We have made many difficult decisions because we know there are economic sectors that are being affected and that will be affected by these new decisions. But, as I said before, the most important thing is… the safety of my people.”

Thursday’s Covid-19-related executive order is the most significant action since Gov. Vázquez’s June 11 executive order lifting the island’s lockdown and the reopening practically all businesses and services to the public, leaving the responsibility to continue with the safety measures to avoid the spread of Covid-19 up to citizens and the private sector.

Medical experts sound alarm

In fact, the governor’s task force medical experts said Thursday that the current unprecedented rebound in Covid-19 cases originated just after the lifting of the lockdown last month. They said the proportion of confirmed positive Covid-19 cases had breached a critical threshold for the first time since the first novel coronavirus cases on the island were identified in early March.

Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) Executive Director Dr. José Rodríguez Orengo said that after the governor implemented the curfew/lockdown in mid-March, the proportion of Covid-19 test results that were positive dipped below 1 percent on May 10 and remained there for about six weeks, even as virus testing increased. Since the end of May, about 4,000 Covid-19 tests have been carried out a day.

However, confirmed coronavirus cases started to increase significantly on a daily basis starting on June 22, pushing up the percentage of positive test results past 5.1 percent by June 28. The World Health Organization has determined this percentage to be a critical threshold that calls for emergency measures to be implemented to control the epidemic.

“We thought we were about to be the New Zealand of the Americas,” he said in reference to the Pacific island-nation that has claimed to have virtually eliminated the novel coronavirus among its population.

Rodríguez cautioned that measures to tackle the spread of the virus must take into account localized infection rates to determine the origins of the contagion in those areas.

“Not all pandemics are the same. Therefore, we have to focalize in each one of the towns to understand what is happening in them,” he said. “That is why the municipal epidemiologists are so important and the contact tracing they are currently carrying out with the Health Department. What is going on in each municipality is different and we must take that into account when making decisions.”

Dr. Juan Carlos Orengo, an epidemiologist at the Ponce Health Sciences University, said that the recent trend in Covid-19 cases showed that the epidemic is becoming rampant, with hospitalizations increasing “exponentially” since June 18. The number of Covid-19-related hospitalizations had dipped to well below 100 in early June, but has climbed up to a record 302 as of Friday.

Dr. Humberto Guillot, infectologist at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, said that he projects that the number of accumulated confirmed Covid-19 cases could surpass 5,000 a week by the middle of August if the current trend holds. Such cases numbered just over 3,100 on Thursday.

In fact, the medical task force recommended that public and private schools hold hybrid classes next semester, combining in-person and virtual classes. Public schools are scheduled to begin classes on Aug. 17, butEducation Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez has yet to announce how classes will be given, even though the governor has said she favors hybrid classes.

The governor made no mention of this measure in her message on Thursday.

Moreover, the medical task force members did not address the local shortage of reagents used in the processing of more reliable Covid-19 molecular tests. Health Secretary González said earlier this week that as a result of this shortage, Covid-19 testing would be limited to “our specialists in the hospitals, and the elderly,” stressing that untested visitors to the island will not be provided with such testing.