New lockdown being considered by Vázquez administration officials to curb Covid-19 spike
National Guard chief acknowledges concern over tourists’ noncompliance with virus restrictions
SAN JUAN – Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced administration officials said Tuesday that that a ramping up of restrictions, including reimplementation of a general lockdown, is being considered to curb spiking rates of Covid-19 virus cases and deaths in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said that the governor will announce later this week a series of additional measures based on the recommendations of health experts who are studying the sharp upward trend in novel coronavirus cases, including hospitalizations, which reached 469 on Tuesday – an almost fivefold increase since the beginning of June. The number of virus-induced deaths stood at 209.
During a press conference on Tuesday, González said that five entities will meet on Wednesday to study the Covid-19 data and reach a consensus on recommendations to the governor. These entities include the governor’s Covid-19 medical task force, the Ponce medical task force, the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute, the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust, and the Health Department.
“We are studying all of the options. The governor will announce an action plan. We have had a death per day since June. On the hospitalization side, there are 40 fewer beds occupied by Covid-19 patients. We have the same number of patients in intensive care and on ventilators, but it is a relatively low number, between 5 percent and 6 percent of the capacity in Puerto Rico,” the official said, noting that doses of the antiviral medicine Remdesivir, proven to be effective in the treatment of Covid-19, is being ordered by the commonwealth government. “So we continue to prepare. There is anxiety. We are waiting for the two weeks [of the restrictions] to conclude.”
Nevertheless, González expressed his concern about “overexposed” younger people who may be asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus and are infecting more vulnerable older adults, which make up the bulk of the deaths from the disease caused by the virus.
“My message to the youth is that they have prudence and respect,” the official said. “I want them to realize that when they have the virus they carry a lethal weapon that can cause death.”
Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes, adjutant general of Puerto Rico National Guard, which has coordinated Covid-19 testing and screening at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMM), told reporters Tuesday that tougher measures, including a resumption of a lockdown that was implemented by the governor at the outset of the Covid-19 emergency in March, are not being ruled out.
A response to a request made earlier this month to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to limit flights from U.S. virus hotspots such as Florida and Texas to Puerto Rico has not been received yet, Reyes said. Epidemiologists on the island have called for tighter controls at the airport, noting that a big source of infections is coming from overseas hotspots.
Protesters on Saturday blocked the entrance to LMM, demanding a restriction on the number of tourists coming in to the island, many of them attracted by discounted ticket prices, until the Covid-19 epidemic on the island is brought under control.
“It is one of the alternatives we are working on (a lockdown). Certainly there has been public discussion of closing the airport; that is not under the jurisdiction of the government of Puerto Rico, that is the prerogative of the president of the United States,” Reyes said upon his arrival to La Fortaleza governor’s mansion in Old San Juan to participate in a meeting with Gov. Vázquez as well as other state and federal officials on the subject of Covid-19.
On July 16, with medical experts warning of a “rampant” increase in confirmed Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations, Gov. Vázquez announced an executive order reinstating 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.
The executive order, which will be in effect until Friday, mandates the total closure of bars, discotheques, cinemas, concert halls, game centers, theaters, casinos, attraction parks, and gyms.
All visitors to the island must bring a negative Covid-19 test and use a face mask, and go into quarantine if requested, the governor said. Those refusing to wear a face mask in public could be fined up to $5,000.
Barely a month earlier, on June 11, the governor announced the lifting the island’s 88-day 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.
On Tuesday, Reyes was asked about reports of stateside tourists arriving on the island who are refusing to wear masks, while the government is blaming residents for not complying with the July 17 restrictions enacted to curb a rebound in Covid-19 cases and deaths, which have soared to their highest levels since the pandemic emergency began in mid-March.
“We have to be more restrictive in the observance of the executive order. The Police Department is presenting a work plan on how we will enforce this executive order and be more rigorous,” the National Guard official said. “Certainly, Puerto Rico has done it well; we have to continue the battle against Covid-19 until we have a vaccine for it.”
“The airlines have not been cooperating… that is one of the points we have to address and reinforce,” he added.
A news report published on Monday by the Daily Beast website quotes stateside tourists in Old San Juan who were adamantly anti-mask despite a U.S. Covid-19 death toll of over 146,000. The news article quotes travel partners who hail from the hotspot state of Texas, specifically the city of Austin, who downplayed the often deadly virus, calling it part of a government conspiracy.
“Maybe some people did die of coronavirus,” a tourist identified as Serena told The Daily Beast. “But a lot of the cases, the numbers, they’re false, and it wasn’t from the coronavirus.”
Her travel companion, identified as Roger, agreed with her, despite a widespread expert consensus that if anything, coronavirus deaths are probably being vastly undercounted: “I think a lot of the numbers are made up,” he said.
“Conversations with residents and workers in San Juan painted a picture not just of tourists going rogue, but of an ugly atmosphere of willful negligence—all while the island’s COVID-19 trend-lines are heading in the wrong direction,” states the news article written by Jhoni Jackson, which notes that “the government’s push to reopen tourism” included hospitality deals supported by major airline price cuts to as low as $11 one way from Newark, New Jersey. Other carriers hover around $60 for a round-trip from Orlando or New York City, she reported.
“We have observed situations in the tourist zone, with tourists disobeying the law,” Reyes conceded. “We have been meeting in the past three days and we have given recommendations.”
The Daily Beast news report notes that the island’s health-care system—which still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017—is already stretched thin.
In fact, Reyes said that there was a shortage of reagents used in the processing of more reliable Covid-19 molecular tests. He said that the inventory of reagents will be restricted for testing of critical groups such as the elderly and first responders.
“The reality is that the inventory of rapid and molecular tests is limited,” he said.
Some business groups have come out against the greater restrictions on commercial establishments, arguing that the measures threaten them with bankruptcy as government aid tappers off. On Monday, San Juan Superior Court Judge Laureana Pérez Pérez gave the commonwealth government 10 days to explain why it should not reopen gyms, acting on a July 25 lawsuit brought by several local gym owners who argue that the Covid-19 executive order is unconstitutional.
During a roundtable with journalists last week, the head of Popular Inc.—the holding company of Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, the largest island-based bank—said that while he does not foresee a return to a phase one lockdown, its implementation could deal a fatal blow to the local economy.
“We are in a difficult phase because we have to balance out the economy and health. I think Puerto Rico would not be able to withstand another lockdown. The permanent economic destruction would be so large,” warned Popular’s CEO, Ignacio Álvarez. “We have to experiment with what we are doing now, which is closing bars, limiting the beaches… We have to look for other measures because Puerto Rico cannot withstand another lockdown.”