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Puerto Rico to reopen businesses, beaches with new rules

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico will cautiously reopen beaches, restaurants, churches, hair salons and retail stores next week under strict new rules as the U.S. territory emerges from a two-month lockdown that stifled business activity on an island already beset with economic woes.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced Thursday that most businesses will reopen on Tuesday, but a 7 p.m-to-5 a.m. curfew will remain in place until June 15. All people will be required to wear a mask when outside or inside a business, regardless of what they are doing.

“Puerto Rico is facing a new way of life,” she said. “It’s the right time ... We have flattened the curve.”

Many Puerto Ricans, including business owners, cheered the highly anticipated announcement.

Health experts, however, warned that the government has not tested enough people or conducted enough contact tracing and is not prepared for a possible spike in new infections. In addition, most of the re-openings contradict recommendations made by a government-appointed medical task force.

Puerto Rico’s Health Department has reported more than 2,900 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 126 deaths, and dozens of additional infections still emerge every day. Officials do not regularly update statistics, including how many people have been tested or how many have recovered. Until recently, the island had a lower per-capita testing rate than any U.S. state.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer, spokeswoman for CienciaPR, a nonprofit group of Puerto Rican scientists who seek widespread testing, said she was concerned that the government's data did not show that COVID-19 is under control.

Vázquez said the restricted reopenings will protect people but also provide desperately needed economic relief on an island hit by hurricanes and earthquakes. The resumption of some normal activities also comes as the government restructures some of its more than $70 billion public debt load after declaring the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2015.

Restaurants will be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Hair salons and barber shops will welcome clients by appointment only. People doing exercise, such as surfing, jogging, swimming or kayaking, will be allowed at the beach from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Retail stores will be allowed to reopen but under limited capacity, and people will be prohibited from trying on clothes, among other restrictions. Malls will open June 8.

“You will not be allowed to stroll the halls like before,” the governor said. “There will be lanes ... We have to be disciplined.”

Businesses that will remain closed for now include gyms and movie theaters, and all arriving flights are limited to Puerto Rico’s main international airport.

Economist José Caraballo said that the lockdown, one of the strictest in any U.S. jurisdiction, has caused estimated economic losses ranging from $6 billion to $12 billion. The unemployment rate has spiked to an estimated 40% on an island of 3.2 million people with a poverty rate of more than 40%, higher than any U.S. state.

Unlike in the aftermath of hurricanes Maria and Irma and a recent string of earthquakes, Puerto Ricans cannot move to the U.S. mainland because of the pandemic, Caraballo said in a phone interview.

“They are desperate,” he said. “The usual escape valve, which was migration, is closed.”

Delays in the distribution of local and federal aid have also deepened the financial struggles of many Puerto Ricans affected by the natural disasters and the government’s ongoing bankruptcy-like process, which has led to austerity measures.

“The government’s inefficiency has caused the social crisis we have right now,” Caraballo said.

Public schoolchildren and those seeking pandemic unemployment assistance have been especially hurt by the pandemic.

The government kept school cafeterias shut for almost two months, opting to offload its food to nonprofits and a local food bank, where it quickly ran out. That forced some teachers to buy food for their students with their own money.

In addition, some 90,000 people applied for pandemic unemployment assistance when the funds became available on April 28, but an online system crashed. It was not until Thursday that the government said that the first 50,000 people began receiving payments. It’s unclear when the remaining applicants will receive the money.

Some business owners did not feel like celebrating much.

Hair stylist Anabel Fuentes said she lost up to $8,000 during the lockdown, and worries she will continue to lose money because she can only attend a limited number of clients now.

"The financial problems will persist, and might even worsen and lead to bankruptcy,” she said. “Nothing will be the same.”