Puerto Rico wanted tourists, but with coronavirus spiking, it has changed plans

COVID-19 cases spiked at the same time tourists from the mainland were seen on viral videos failing to comply with safety guidelines to contain the virus.
Image: PUERTORICO-HEALTH-VIRUS
Travelers wearing masks wait in line at a security checkpoint at Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 18.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

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By Nicole Acevedo

Puerto Rico's plans to encourage more tourism from the U.S. mainland have backfired as the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked at the same time that the island has attracted more visitors — and more complaints that many aren't following safety guidelines to minimize the virus' spread.

Days after Puerto Rico launched a campaign to promote that the island would "formally reopen for in-bound tourism on July 15" with new safety mandates for visitors, Gov. Wanda Vázquez pushed the date to Aug. 15. She also rolled back multiple reopening efforts, ordering bars, gyms, marinas, theaters and casinos to close down again until July 31.

"We've reached a level where we need to take more restrictive measures," she said.

The governor announced other rollbacks, including prohibiting alcohol sales after 7 p.m., limiting restaurant capacity to 50 percent and restricting beach access only to those who are exercising. A 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew will also remain.

Multiple social media videos went viral over the weekend, showing tourists fighting at the main international airport and violating mask mandates, as well as social distancing rules.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Puerto Rico was initially praised for being one of the first U.S. jurisdictions to put drastic measures in place, such as implementing an islandwide curfew and banning cruise ships, as well as closing schools and all nonessential businesses, to avoid overwhelming the island's fragile health care system in March.

But a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has coincided with Puerto Rico's efforts to reopen nonessential businesses and tourist attractions. Over the past week, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped by more than 1,000, while the number of probable cases increased by almost 1,300.

The island of 3.2 million people reported more than 4,300 confirmed coronavirus cases Wednesday, more than 8,700 probable ones and at least 185 deaths, including that of a 13-year-old child, according to Puerto Rico's Health Department.

'They don't listen to us'

Small-business owners working in tourist areas like Condado and Piñones have been saying many tourists don't want to comply with Vázquez's orders to wear masks and practice physical distancing.

"They don't listen to us. We had a situation in which we had to call the cops because they got aggressive after we told them they had to leave if they had no masks," Belkis Mora, who works at a bar in Condado, told Telemundo Puerto Rico. "We've had many incidents like this, and it's very difficult."

Modesta Irizarry, a resident of Loíza, worries that tourists will continue to travel to the island because many flights to Puerto Rico are very inexpensive. A one-way flight in August from cities like Orlando, Florida; New York; Austin, Texas; or Philadelphia can cost $29 to $39.

"We can't stop people from coming, but our leaders can come up with a prevention plan to educate people, that tells people what they can and cannot do in a public space," Irizarry said in an interview. "The governor said last week that it was the tourists' responsibility to wear masks and practice social distancing. But I think the government also needs to take responsibility."

Jorge Argüelles Morán, president of the Centro Unido de Detallistas, a nonprofit representing the interests of small-business owners in Puerto Rico, told WAPA-TV of San Juan in Spanish that "no one is talking about how are we supposed to control the people infringing upon the executive order when they are in a public establishment."

"You can't assume that the business owner has to be the one to intervene, because we don't have the power to enforce that kind of stuff," he said.

Safety measures, but what about compliance?

Some of the new safety measures require passengers to present negative molecular COVID-19 tests that are to have been taken no more than 72 hours before arrival. Travelers must also fill out travel declaration forms from the Puerto Rico Health Department and wear masks in public areas to avoid fines.

José Reyes of the Puerto Rico National Guard said on WAPA-TV that about 5,000 passengers have arrived in Puerto Rico over the last five days from states considered to be coronavirus hot spots.

"It's an alarming amount of travelers," he said, adding that over 30 flights have landed at the main international airport from Florida, "which is now considered a hot spot, therefore, heightening the risk of contagion in Puerto Rico."

Reyes estimates that only 20 percent of the tourists who have recently arrived have complied with the molecular COVID-19 test requirement and that many others have arrived with no masks.

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Discover Puerto Rico, the not-for-profit entity that works with the government to promote the island as a vacation destination, acknowledged it's not the right time for a visit.

"It's unfortunate, all the altercations that have happened between visitors and residents," Anamarys Caratini, a Discover Puerto Rico spokesperson, told Telemundo Puerto Rico in Spanish.

"Our message now is that Puerto Rico isn't prepared to receive tourists. It's better that they stay at home until the virus is contained," she said, adding they can visit and enjoy at a later time.

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