Puerto Rico Governor Declares State of Emergency to Fight Covid-19 Spread
SAN JUAN – After Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declared Thursday a state of emergency for the island and ordered the Puerto Rico National Guard (PRNG) to start screening travelers arriving in local international airports for the highly infectious novel coronavirus, three cases of Covid-19 were confirmed Friday.
After an hour-long delay, in a televised briefing late Friday evening, Vázquez said, “We need to intensify the social distancing measures,” before announcing that public schools will be closed from Monday until March 31, and urged private schools to follow suit, in order to help curb the spread of the virus.
Asked by the media if she will be getting tested, the governor said she did not have the symptoms, thus was not going to yet, despite experts indicating that many of those who are infected are asymptomatic.
The governor said her administration had to manage the outbreak while dealing with the aftermath of the January earthquakes, and argued her team has handled the situation in an orderly and effective manner, implementing measures according to their perceived level of threat. The government response has been criticized publicly by certain healthcare professionals.
Despite the expected hit to the tourism industry, vessels will not be allowed to dock in Puerto Rico until the end of the month; however, cruise operators “have asked” to moor their ships in the Port of San Juan, the sight of which the governor warned about, saying it was important to note they would be empty.
Vázquez also announced that she had asked the Secretary of Health Rafael Rodríguez to resign due to dissatisfaction with how he has managed the emergency. Undersecretary Concepción Quiñonez de Longo will serve as acting secretary.
Right before ending the press conference, the governor said that for now, the social distancing measures are voluntary but that she would be watchful of how people are behaving, intimating that she would impose stricter measures.
The state of emergency—the second such declaration by the governor this year since the Jan. 6-7 earthquakes that damaged homes and businesses in the southeastern part of the island—is in effect until March 31.
Vázquez’s action follows an Oval Office address to the nation by President Donald Trump on Wednesday night in which he announced he was restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the United States.
The monthlong restriction on travel begins late Friday, at midnight, and applies only to most foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area at any point for 14 days before their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area includes France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others, and the White House said the zone has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases outside of mainland China.
The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others “identified in the proclamation” signed by Trump. Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the Trump administration is also requesting travelers returning to the United States from Europe to “voluntarily quarantine” for 14 days.
Some 27 of the 50 U.S. states have declared an emergency to fight Covid-19, which has reportedly overwhelmed the health system regions in countries such as Italy and Iran and has roiled the world’s financial markets. Wall Street saw its worst losses Thursday since the stock market crash of 1987.
The country has reported more than 1,700 infections of the novel coronavirus, but amid a nationwide testing shortage the true figure is probably much higher. As of Thursday, almost every state had reported a case.
Vázquez said that PRNG troops will screen incoming passengers at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Isla Verde, the Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla, the Mercedita Airport in Ponce and the Roosevelt Roads Airport in Ceiba.
“The National Guard will be activated because it is in our interest, as all of you know, that the president of the United States issued an alert for flights,” the governor said during a press conference Thursday. “The National Guard is being activated in all airports for screening by the National Guard medical unit.”
The governor also called for the cancellation of mass events and gatherings on the island.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Puerto Rico National Theater Company have canceled their schedule of upcoming plays and other events. The Puerto Rico Coffee & Chocolate Expo as well as the Las Marías Sweet Orange Festival have been postponed.
The Puerto Rico Sports & Recreation Department and Puerto Rico Olympic Committee have both postponed all competitions and training activities. The upcoming Puerto Rico Ironman 70.3 triathlon as well as the DirecTV Night of Champions, scheduled to be held at the Roger Mendoza Stadium in Caguas, have been postponed until further notice. The Puerto Rico National Superior Basketball, the Puerto Rico Women’s Superior Volleyball and Double-A Superior Baseball leagues postponed their tournaments and games until further notice as well.
Stateside, the spread of the novel coronavirus has led to the suspension of sporting events, including the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League seasons. Cultural events such as the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York have been postponed.
Vázquez criticized the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta for the delay in issuing results for tests for the first five suspected cases of Covid-19 in Puerto Rico detected last week. The CDC had pledged to complete the tests within 48 hours.
“We have had a serious talk with the CDC… It is unacceptable that the CDC continues to delay this,” the governor said. “As the governor, I demand that the CDC solve this situation as soon as possible.”
By Friday evening, of eight tests, three came back positive for Covid-19 on the island. Eleven patients were under observation and six are in the Veterans Health Administration Hospital in Río Piedras.
A 30-year-old woman in Ponce was placed in isolation Thursday after her doctor determined her symptoms made her a suspected carrier of the novel coronavirus. The woman said she had attended the National Salsa Day Festival at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan on Sunday. Several attendees and journalists have been put in quarantine after they reported being in contact with a physician from Panama who came down with a fever during the event. The doctor, who also attended a salsa dance event at the Convention District Sheraton Hotel, tested positive with Covid-19 on his return to Panama.
A University of Puerto Rico student returning from Seoul, South Korea, was also put in quarantine.
Vázquez also announced that March 31 deadlines for all government licenses, including drivers’ and vehicle licenses, will be pushed back to April 30.
The April 15 income tax filing date has been pushed back to May 15, the governor said.
“What we want is for citizens to go to offices as little as possible, unless it is for an essential service,” she said.
Crews from ships docking in Puerto Rico ports will be banned from coming onshore, she said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez Núñez, along with Antonio “Tony” Soto Torres, chairman of the House Treasury, Budget and Economic Stability Committee, announced Thursday the filing of legislation reallocating $15 million to the commonwealth Health Department to fight Covid-19.
The World Health Organization declared Wednesday the coronavirus a pandemic and urged aggressive action from all countries to fight it, as U.S. stocks plunged 20 percent into bear market territory and several U.S. cities joined global counterparts in banning large gatherings.
As of Friday, Covid-19 had infected more than 140,000 people in 133 countries and territories since the virus was first detected in December in the city of Wuhan, capital of the Hubei province of China. The death toll from the virus has reached 5,436—with most still in China but a growing number being registered in other countries, with South Korea, Iran, Italy and Spain particularly hard-hit.
The death toll from the new coronavirus in the United States has climbed to 41.
Of the 63,175 people who are currently infected by the novel coronavirus, 57,386 people, or 91 percent, are in mild condition, while 5,789 people or 9 percent, percent are in serious or critical condition. Some 72,500, or 93 percent of the people have recovered from the virus or have been discharged from hospitals.
—Caribbean Business news services and reporter José Alvarado contributed.