SAN JUAN – With medical data indicating that the current spike in Covid-19 infections in Puerto Rico is being driven by local residents, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced announced Friday a new executive order that is largely a two-week extension of restrictions and prohibitions on social, recreational, and entertainment activities that went into effect on July 17.
Executive Order 2020-060, which will remain in effect between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15, maintains the restrictions in previous executive orders 2020-054 and 2020-057, including the seven-day 10 pm-to-5 am curfew, the Monday-through-Friday ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages after 7 p.m., and the Sunday dry law and closing of nonessential businesses. The new executive order also continues with the mandated closure of bars, pubs and similar establishments.
Hardware stores will be allowed to operate on Sundays, along with restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies and gasoline stations, chiefly to allow residents to buy supplies to prepare for the current hurricane season, Vázquez said, noting, on the other hand, that beaches will be completely shuttered on Sundays.
Restaurants opening on Sundays will not be allowed to admit customers and will only be allowed to operate take-out, drive-in or delivery services, the governor said, adding that during the rest of the week occupation in these establishments will be limited to 50 percent. In cases in which this occupation ceiling does not allow the minimum six-feet of distance between customers, the restaurant must reduce occupation until achieving the physical distancing required, she said.
Entertainment establishments such as discotheques, cinemas, concert halls, game centers, theaters, casinos, attraction parks, and gyms must remain closed during the next two weeks, according to the executive order.
Employers, including business owners, must “immediately” report to the Puerto Rico Health Department any suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19 among their employees, according to the executive order, which “recommends” the “periodic” cleaning of air conditioners at commercial establishments and offices to avoid airborne transmission of the often deadly virus.
“The evidence provided by the Health Department and as discussed in meetings with the Puerto Rico medical task force, the Puerto Rico Science Trust, the Ponce medical task force, the [Puerto Rico] Statistics Institute, and the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. [PRTC]demonstrates that community transmission represents the highest percentage of positive cases of Covid-19, ”the governor said in a televised message alongside members of her medical and economic task forces as well as Health Secretary Lorenzo González, PRTC Executive Director Carla Campos , and Economic Development Secretary Manuel Laboy.
“I reiterate my position that we will continue to take the necessary measures for the safety and health of our citizens,” Vázquez continued. "I stated when we issued the past executive order that depending on the behavior of people, we will continue with the restrictions."
The governor stressed that several precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are obligatory, including the wearing of face masks in offices and public places and keeping a minimal distance of six feet between people who visit commercial establishments and work in offices .
“Those who do not comply with the use of face masks and the dispositions of this order will face criminal prosecution,” Vázquez said.
Vázquez said that “under no circumstance” will the crowding of people be allowed outside of authorized establishments, particularly with alcoholic beverages purchased in other locations.
An exception to the Sunday closings will be made for State Elections Commission-authorized electoral events scheduled for Aug. 2 and Aug. 9, to “guarantee the constitutional right to vote of all citizens, Vázquez said, adding that election officials as well as voters must observe Covid-19 precautionary measures.
The executive order prohibits crowding in waiting rooms at doctors ’offices and hospitals. Scheduling of elective surgeries, including ambulatory procedures, will have to follow Covid-19 protocols, the governor said.
Regarding tourism-related activities, Vázquez said that hostels, including short-term rentals, that are registered with PRTC will not be allowed to operate and owners face penalties for noncompliance. Owners, administrators and managers of short-term rental properties marketed through platforms such as Airbnb, VRBO, Join a Join, among others, must prohibit the entrance to these properties of people who are not duly registered as individuals who are staying there, the governor said, adding that social gatherings and meetings will be banned at short-term rental properties during the term of the executive order.
The ban on social activities in common areas of condominiums and housing subdivisions, such as pools, gyms and basketball courts, will continue, the governor said, adding that marinas will remain closed.
Vázquez said that public and private schools will only be authorized by the Education Department to conduct classes remotely starting in mid-August until Sept. 17, when in-person classes will be allowed to resume if the virus is under control.
Dr. Miguel Valencia, Health Department in charge of virus data, said that while the proportion of Covid-19 test results have stabilized between 6.4 percent and 6.8 percent, he cautioned that the agency has yet to receive data on Covid-19 test results from laboratories done during that last two weeks. He said that these results, which will be reported on Saturday, should indicate if the infection rate is near or has surpassed 10 percent.
Valencia said that the shortage of shortage of reagents used in the processing of more reliable Covid-19 molecular tests has limited the testing of patients who are more likely to test positive. He said that hospitalized Covid-19 patients have numbered about 500 this week, well above previous figures during the emergency declared since March, but short of the 700 expected by this date.
The medical expert said that the rate of death had "stabilized" since the peak reached in mid-July. As of Friday, the death toll from Covid-19 stood at 219, with 5,900 confirmed positive cases of the virus.
Contrary to recent reports that tourists are flocking to the island, Campos said that airport screening measures implemented on July 15 led to a 25 percent decrease in arrivals to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport during the week ending July 19 compared to the previous week. There was also a 30 percent increase in canceled flight reservations to the island during the same period, the Tourism Co. chief said, noting that future reservations have plummeted by 84 percent.
Before the implementation of the airport measures requiring Covid-19 testing and quarantine, travel reservations had increased by 69 percent, Campos said. She noted that while more passengers were arriving on the island than there were leaving, this has shifted since mid-July, and now there is a net flow of passengers leaving the island. Of those currently arriving on the island, 55 percent are residents, she said.
“This means people are getting the message and are postponing their flights… following the call by the government of Puerto Rico,” she said. "This is definitely not the time for flying."
In fact, according to airport contact tracing data collected by the Health Department, most arriving passengers identified as having Covid-19 are island residents, Campos said.
“This means our people are traveling more, are visiting places with high risk of infection, and when they return to the island they represent a higher rate of infection,” she said.
The fact that most non-resident people arriving to the island are staying an average of five days and longer demonstrates that they are most likely relatives and friends of residents who are staying in their homes, Campos said, noting that visiting tourists are to "minority."
“People should only travel if it is essential. Visits from relatives and friends should also be postponed, ”she said.
The governor has requested that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limit flights from Covid-19 hotspots from the U.S. mainland, but to no avail.
“We are surely tired of physical distancing, but now more than ever it is time to discourage visits of relatives from places with high [infection rates]given that these visits increase the risk of infection, ”Dr. Segundo Rodríguez, chairman of the governor's medical task force, said, calling on people visiting or returning to the island to bring with them negative results of Covid-19 PCR molecular tests taking three days before flying.