Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Hard-hit business sector calls on governor to ease Covid-19 restrictions

By on September 9, 2020

(Screen capture of https://www.acdetpr.com/covid19)

Retailers, restaurants say they are being unduly targeted despite thwarting outbreaks 

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Retail Trade Association President Iván Báez called on Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced to lift the Sunday lockdown mandate for nonessential businesses, arguing that these are being unduly targeted by public health measures, despite largely having implemented safety precautions to protect customers as well as employees. 

On Aug. 19, with a continuing spike in novel coronavirus cases that had led to 346 deaths from Covid-19, the governor issued a new executive order, EO-2020-062, adding new restrictions to control the spread of the potentially deadly virus. Among these measures was the reinstatement of a Sunday lockdown, which includes nonessential businesses but excludes supermarkets, pharmacies and medical offices, among other services deemed as essential. The order bans the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays and from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m Monday through Saturday. 

Vázquez is expected to announce modifications to the executive order later this week, as the administration reviews data provided by the Covid-19 task force on the progress of the disease since last month and how effective the restrictions have been. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been proven, and this was confirmed by the numbers announced by epidemiologists, that retail businesses have not been the focus of outbreaks or infections on the island,” Báez said in a statement Wednesday, in which he stressed the retail industry’s “proactive” collaboration with the government. This includes a media campaign, called “Nueva Realidad te Abrazamos” (New Reality We Embrace You), as well as the signing by 300 business owners of a voluntary virtual commitment posted on www.compromisoalunisono.com and Facebook.com/acdetpr to participate in a collaborative vigilance and self-monitoring program. 

“Therefore, we request that the governor allow us to operate on Sundays on a regular basis,” said the head of the association (ACDET by its Spanish initials), noting that the trade group was joining other industries on the island calling on the administration to allow them to operate with fewer restrictions, given that recent Covid-19 outbreaks have been traced to family encounters, bars, caravans and mass gatherings, not to retail stores. 

“We have not let our guard down,” he continued. “The physical distancing measures, hand disinfection, use of face masks and education to consumers are there. We cannot continue affecting more than 100,000 people, who by not being able to work Sundays do not take home an income.” 

Báez said that the consequences of continuing the Sunday lockdown for much longer could be “very serious and dire for the sustenance of thousands of retail workers.” He said that the winding down of Covid-19 emergency aid, including the exhausting of additional federal Nutrition Assistance Program funding and the end of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, could worsen the island’s unemployment situation. 

Citing figures from a local economist, Dr. Antonio Rosado, the ACDET head said that the amount of payroll income lost due to the Sunday lockdown could reach $203 million, given that the 7,296 establishments that close on Sundays or reduce business hours during the week employ 102,697 people.  

This comes out to about $7.6 million in payroll that employees do not get paid Sundays, Báez said, noting that apart from the income loss, there is a “psychological factor” involving the long lines of customers at establishments on Saturdays and Sundays, which worsen crowding and increase the risk of spread.  

“Each Sunday, closing translates into losses for everyone,” the business leader said. “If we calculate the more than 20 Sundays that businesses have not been able to operate, employees have stopped collecting more than $100 million. This is less income to households and can cause a food crisis of great proportions.” 

Báez called on the government to “continue reinforcing security and law and order measures at the sources of spread that have been identified and allow us to operate on Sundays with the safety measures we have implemented.” 

“Without an economy, you cannot have health,” he added. 

Restaurant group calls for ‘flexibility’ 

On Tuesday, Puerto Rico Restaurants Association (Asore by its Spanish acronym) Executive Director Gadiel Lebrón said his organization had sent Gov. Vázquez a series of recommendations to allow restaurants to operate “with a little more flexibility, but maintaining a control in the situation we are facing.”  

Lebrón said that in a letter to the governor, Asore is requesting that dining rooms be allowed to open Sundays and that the sale and consumption of alcohol be permitted inside restaurants until closing time, seven days a week. 

“We believe that diners who are already inside restaurants consuming their food and drinks can continue to do so until the closing time of the establishments because they are in a controlled environment, without crowds and taking all precautionary measures, according to the protocol established in the industry,” he said. “However, consumption outside the premises must continue to be prohibited to avoid crowds and, consequently, the spread of the virus.” 

Lebrón cited Puerto Rico Health Department data from the Municipal Case Investigation and Contact Tracing System, which indicate that at the beginning of September, 57 percent of the Covid-19 outbreaks involved family parties, birthdays and wakes. 

Lebrón also stressed the importance of providing economic aid to the restaurant industry to avoid the closing of many establishments due to the sales and spending decline as a result of the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by Asore, sales at more than half of the establishments surveyed fell by over 30 percent as of the end of August since the health emergency curfew/lockdown measures were first implemented in mid-March, he said. 

Moreover, 34 percent of restaurant owners polled are covering their own costs without making a profit, while 62 percent said they are suffering business losses, according to the survey. Nearly half, or 40 percent, of respondents said they would have to reduce their workforce if current restrictions remain in effect.  

“We have witnessed the great efforts that restaurants are making to maintain their operations,” Lebrón states in the letter to the governor. “That is why it is vitally important that the government offers the necessary financial support to help the stability of the industry. Sales revenue is down, but costs aren’t. This, consequently, will continue to cause the continued closure of businesses and the loss of jobs.”