Scenes of American tourists violating Covid-19 measures and mandates while visiting Puerto Rico have stirred indignation among residents worried that their efforts to control the pandemic may be marred as more visitors arrive on spring break trips.
Israel Meléndez Ayala, 34, a longtime resident of Old San Juan, saw many tourists without masks when he and his partner went out to walk their dog this week.
"They were behaving as if no one else existed in Old San Juan," Meléndez Ayala told NBC News. "I don't have a problem with people trying to have a good time, but they have to be respectful. We're still living in the middle of a pandemic, and people can't come here and act as if the virus doesn't exist. ... They have a sense of entitlement and apathy I don't understand."
Puerto Ricans in the U.S. territory have avoided overwhelming their already fragile health care system during the pandemic so far, mainly because of extraordinary measures the local government put in place early on — and people’s willingness to comply with them. Puerto Rico was one of the first U.S. jurisdictions to issue a mask mandate and currently has the longest pandemic-related curfew compared to any state.
A series of viral videos have shown tourists violating the island’s midnight curfew, mask mandate and physical distancing guidelines, among other restrictions. Other videos show disorderly tourists getting into fights, dancing on top of moving vehicles, and destroying private property around Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area, including well-known tourist spots. One of the most viral videos showed a tourist riding a scooter in the middle of a busy highway in San Juan, the capital city.
“We’re seeing a chaotic situation, something we haven’t seen before,” Oscar Medina, a San Juan resident, told WKAQ, the local TV news station from NBC's sister network Telemundo in Puerto Rico. “Most of the tourists in Old San Juan and Condado act aggressively at night, don’t wear their masks and leave their trash behind.”
Another resident who lives across from an Airbnb apartment in Old San Juan, Evelyn López, said tourists staying there often have “loud music, speak loudly and engage in altercations.”
“At night here, it’s almost as if we had no curfew," López told WKAQ. “Especially on the weekends, people go on until 1, 2, even 3 a.m.” The island currently has a midnight curfew.
With much of the world’s travel limited, Puerto Rico is becoming a popular destination for mainland Americans.
“Because of the cheap flights, we’re receiving tourists we’re not used to seeing," said Dr. Victor Ramos, president of Puerto Rico's physicians association and part of groups of science experts advising Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
Earlier during the pandemic, most instances of community spread on the island could be linked to Puerto Rico’s main airport, mainly from mainland Puerto Ricans traveling to the island, Ramos said. But Puerto Rico has not seen an uptick in cases since December, reporting its lowest positivity rate in February (5.2 percent) since Covid-19 deaths rose around Thanksgiving.
As Puerto Rico continues to reopen and welcome more tourists, experts and residents worry that travelers’ unwillingness to follow Covid-19 protocols could reverse some of the progress they’ve made so far.
A call for action
Nearly 130 residents in Old San Juan met Thursday and urged officials to take action to control the behavior of tourists and visitors who refuse to comply with Covid-19 protocols. During the meeting, residents said they witnessed instances in which the police "did not say anything" to misbehaving tourists or saw tourists continue to ignore Covid-19 protocols after police confronted them.
“It seems like we’re not responding to the incidents, but we truly are,” Police Commissioner Antonio López Figueroa said days earlier about the situation. He encouraged residents recording the incidents to contact the police immediately to ensure officers can respond to the scene.
Just last weekend, the police issued over 500 fines, including 110 for not wearing a mask, López Figueroa said. Puerto Rican police vowed to increase their presence in tourist areas such as Condado, Old San Juan, Santurce and Isla Verde to ensure tourists follow the curfew.
Since the start of the pandemic, at least 1,079 have been arrested for violating Covid-19 restrictions put in place by executive orders, López Figueroa said last week, adding that Puerto Rican police have received at least 3,689 complaints over Covid-19 violations.
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While police increase their presence, local business owners in Santurce said in a statement they are worried that the issues around tourist behavior and the ensuing crackdown will impact their businesses.
“We are not guilty for the lack of guidance and the bad behavior of the tourists,” the Merchants Association of La Placita de Santurce said in a Facebook post.
The Puerto Rico Tourism Company announced this week that it launched an English-language educational campaign to alert tourists of the island's Covid-19 restrictions and the consequences of not following the rules.
At the same time, Puerto Rico's governor said Thursday he sees the anticipated rise in tourism as “something positive."
“Those visits have an impact on our economy," Pierluisi said. "Yes, everyone is welcome, but what we do warn everyone is that there is an executive order that must be followed and it applies to everyone, from visitors to residents."