PRCC head urges Vázquez to refrain from a general lockdown, implement restrictions focused on hot spots; Says SMEs are on the edge due to crisis
SAN JUAN – Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced will deliver to special address on Thursday afternoon to announce measures to halt the recent acceleration in Covid-19 infections in Puerto Rico.
The governor’s address will be aired at 4:30 p.m. on the WIPR public broadcasting network as well as on La Fortaleza governor's mansion Facebook ( https://www.facebook.com/fortalezaproficial/ ), administration officials announced Thursday morning.
With the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations on the island growing at a faster pace during the past two weeks, Vázquez said during a press conference on Monday that she was consulting with members of the administration's economic and health task forces to determine whether lockdown measures that were lifted in May should be implemented again to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The governor said that task force members were charged with identifying specific activities that “in some way” are leading to an unprecedented rate of coronavirus contagion in Puerto Rico, noting that this would be “very important for us to make the adjustments.” She warned that “economic, social and recreational activities” would have to be restricted anew if the public fails to follow safety measures involving the use of face masks and social distancing.
“We will not allow, unfortunately, that all that we have achieved and that have set us apart as a people in the management of this pandemic be set back, ”she said, hinting that bars and pubs selling alcoholic beverages that were allowed to reopen last month could be targeted in this phase of the emergency. "Covid will continue with us. The virus is living with us. As long as we keep it outside our bodies and outside our homes, we will keep our heath and our lives. If the recommendations are to take more rigorous measures, very sadly we will have to do it because there are no other alternatives. ”
The Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) reported Wednesday of“ an alarming ”increase in positive cases of Covid-19 infections that surpassed the key 5 percent threshold last week and “has continued to rise and is now close to 10 percent.”
In its latest report dated Wednesday, the Puerto Rico Health Department states that the number of accumulated confirmed cases of Covid-19 has reached 3,119 – an increase of 7.4 percent when compared to the 2,904 cases in the report dated Monday. The number of “probable” accumulated cases of virus infection increased 3.3 percent during the same period, from 7,219 on Monday to 7,455 on Wednesday. This makes for a total of 10,574 confirmed and “probable” cases of Covid-19 on the island as of Wednesday, up 4.5 percent from Monday's 10,123 cases.
The number of confirmed and “probable” deaths due to the novel coronavirus increased by three during the past three days to reach 172 as of Wednesday, according to the agency report, which said that there were 75 confirmed Covid-19 deaths and 97 “probable” virus-related deaths.
Confirmed cases are those based on results of the more reliable molecular (RT-PCR) tests that resulted in a positive reading.
The number of people with Covid-19 that have had to be hospitalized exceeded 250 on Wednesday after weeks in which such numbers averaged below 100.
An executive order issued by the governor went into effect Wednesday requiring passengers arriving at the island's international airports to present a negative Covid-19 test taken at least 72 hours before the flight, and which they must report to the Health Dep artment’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, 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 placed on passengers arriving mostly from US 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.
Moreover, the New Progressive Party as well as the Popular Democratic Party both announced this week the cancellation of campaign activities related to the August 8 primaries. Municipal governments have implemented restrictions on the movement of visitors after reports of outbreaks at inns in such tourism havens as Culebra and Cabo Rojo, among others.
Business group chief urges restrained, focused measures
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce (PRCC) President Juan Carlos Agosto told Caribbean Business that his organization is urging the governor to refrain from implementing across-the-board lockdown measures like those that were in place during the months of March and April and, instead, focus restrictions on commercial establishments or places where virus contagion is originating.
Agosto said that revisiting lockdown measures could deal a serious blow to the island's already battered small and midsize enterprises (SMEs). He said that the majority, or 87 percent, of the island's 44,000 businesses have 20 employees or less, noting that increased restrictions would jeopardize their survival.
“We should carefully examine the data to determine where the contagion hot spots are, and [then decide on] how we can manage them without closing the economy as happened in April and May, ”he said. “In the month of June, Puerto Rico had achieved with a good amount of reopening a reduction in cases and a control over the pandemic. What did we do after the month of June that had an impact on the rate of infections? We want this to be examined so that measured actions are taken. ”
Agosto said the government has accumulated enough data – more than 200,000 molecular tests fed into a computerized system – that it can analyze to figure out the origins of the rebound in cases in the last few weeks and implement focused measures to “bring things under control again.” He said that most business on the island have implemented a “series of cutting edge safety measures with heavy investments to prevent Covid-19 infections and resume business activity.”
“Definitively, we recognize the efforts of the private sector to control the spread of this virus. Walmart announced today [Thursday] that it will require customers to wear face masks in their stores. Puerto Rico has been requiring this here for months, ”the recently elected PRCC head said. “At the same time, look at banks, supermarkets and other stores in Puerto Rico, where you have social distancing, cleaning of hands and [required] face-mask wearing, as well as the pick-deliveries in restaurants.”
August suggested that the government may have to place restrictions on businesses such as bars and pubs that serve alcoholic beverages, given that the social interaction in such places impede the safety measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.
“These measures should not lead to closing them but to better control social distancing in these establishments. We have seen the lack of control in these businesses; we have seen videos of this, ”he said. “We are calling on the private sector to take measures and look after their businesses and employees, and not relax [restrictions] more than they should to ensure we can continue with this reopening.”
I added: “It is a false choice to say you must choose public health over the economy. Both can coexist. You definitively can't have an economy without health. ”
Agosto said that the government curfew-lockdown implemented between March and May has already had a harmful impact on SMEs, which have yet to recover, even with the millions of dollars in local and federal Covid-19 aid that were disbursed to businesses.
“We have to be very careful with extreme closures because most businesses in Puerto Rico have less than 20 employees and federal incentives have been tapering off,” he said. "So implementing closures without a government support system – Puerto Rico does not have the money to do this and the federal government does not seem willing to allocate new funds to the Payroll Protection Program – then you have to be careful."
In fact, in PRCC surveys involving their 650 members on the effects of the local Covid-19 emergency measures, nearly a quarter of business owners responding to the survey said they had “not been able to resume normal operations,” Agosto said. The survey states that 54 percent of the owners of businesses in operation since the lockdown was gradually lifted between May and June, said that their sales have decreased compared to the same period last year, he said.
“This was caused by Covid -19 because Puerto Rico had been recovering very well from the earthquakes we had, although we had some things to work out, ”he said. "Contrary to traditional recessions, this Covid-19 recession is two-pronged, involving demand as well as supply. The typical recession only involved lack of demand. This recession also involves a lack of supply because many employees are unable to resume working full time due to the virus lockdowns and curfews. The economy has not reopened to its fullest extent. You cannot implement the normal responses to a recession under these circumstances. In 2009, President Obama enacted stimulus programs that got the economy up and running by 2012. But in this case, $ 3 trillion has been poured into the economy and we still have problems. ”
August said that PRCC members have warned him that another forced closure could put them out of business.
“The government should study their data to determine what was changed and led to problems, and how to correct that without taking us to aggressive lockdowns,” he said. “The Payroll Protection Program money is running out or is about to run out, and we are entering a situation in which businesses will have to pay for losses from their own income, and things could become very critical.”