Wanda Vázquez

Gov. Wanda Vázquez clarified that, despite a looser lockdown, the curfew will remain into effect until June 15. >Carlos Rivera Giusti

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced on Thursday a near-total reopening of the island's social and economic sectors starting May 26 that will allow restricted operations on shopping centers, restaurants, beauty salons, barbershops, and churches.

The new executive order enacted amid the COVID-19 emergency includes retailers, some public offices, Electronic Lottery, and clinics for cosmetic surgeries. People will also be able to visit beaches, albeit restrictedly.

Throughout the announcement, Vázquez was flanked by representatives from economic and religious sectors and high-ranking officials. This time, Health Secretary Lorenzo González was absent because he was exposed to a person who tested positive to the virus. The official underwent the molecular test and expects to receive the results today.

When asked if the health task force that she appointed agreed with the new measures, Vázquez said yes, although she acknowledged that they showed concern over reopening shopping malls. She added that they eventually conceded that the safety protocols would suffice.

The governor warned that now that businesses will reopen, people who are asked by their employers to return to work will not keep receiving unemployment benefits, saying that federal law rules as such.

Faced with the concern that there are people who cannot return to their workplaces—for reasons such as the lack of childcare or because they do not feel emotionally ready to reintegrate themselves—Vázquez stated that these are issues that must be worked out between workers and their Human Resources offices.

Vazquez said she based her decision to further reopen on the numbers provided by the P.R. Department of Health. Those she shared collect data until May 14.

Referring to the numbers, she claimed that there is a drop in infections marked by molecular tests, declared a reduction in the contagion curve, and described the measures of social distancing and curfew that began in mid-March as a success.

However, the governor could not precise how many COVID-19 tests have been done in Puerto Rico. THE WEEKLY JOURNAL requested this information from the Health Department, as well as the total of confirmed cases.

The new executive order—which comes into effect on May 26—will maintain the current curfew until June 15, except for food and purchase delivery services, which will be allowed until midnight. Outside activities will also be extended until 7:00 p.m., instead of 3:00 p.m. as it is now.

Although one of the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that there be a sustained reduction of positive cases for 14 days before promoting new openings, the governor insisted that the present conditions allow to reopen the economy.

"Yes, a reduction has been seen in recent weeks in terms of the contagion line. That is evident. We saw it in the graph. That graph is prepared by the Department of Health. In this sense, we take into account the experience in the development of the pandemic," Vázquez stated.

She added, "you have listened to the Health secretary, who has established alliances for the contact tracing that they are working on. These recommendations and this new executive order have been in consensus with the medical task force and the Health secretary. We are not doing anything that is not recommended by them."

Reopening With Limits

Restaurants will be able to open up to 25 percent of their capacity and—like the rest of the businesses—they must have an authorization from the Department of Labor after having submitted the plan for the reopening.

Barbershops and beauty salons will operate Monday through Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. by appointment. As for shopping centers, the opening of May 26 will be so that they can prepare the facilities, guide employees, and take measures that guarantee social distancing.

These shopping centers will be able to open from June 8, ensuring the use of face masks among consumers and limiting the number of people who can enter stores. They will be able to operate from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 a.m. at 5:00 p.m. Shopping centers with an open format will not be able to allow people that exceed 50 percent of their capacity, while closed centers will have to guarantee one person for every 100 square feet.

Movie theaters, play areas, valet parking lots, and gyms will remain closed. Plays and fine arts centers may open, but only to organize events that can be broadcast remotely and not with an audience present. Horse racing and betting will be allowed, but the Camarero Hippodrome will not be open to the public.

All retail businesses that had already begun to provide service by appointment—including hardware stores, rubber shops, and others—will have to ensure the use of face masks and social distancing within the stores, which may open from Monday to Saturday, between 9:00 am and 5:00 p.m. Motor vehicle dealers will operate Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. at 5:00 p.m. by appointment.

Businesses will continue to be closed on Sundays. The governor justified this determination indicating that this day is necessary for businesses to take cleaning and hygiene measures.

Car wash services, armories, estates, pet grooming and grooming businesses, and travel agencies may also open under the new executive order—as well as laundries—at the same hours Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 am at 5:00 p.m.

Funeral services, which had been suspended since mid-March with the first executive order, will not be allowed with maximum occupancy of 10 people.

Private schools may open to offer virtual camps from their facilities. The governor did not offer a certain date for the start of the school year and said that this and other lines will be evaluated based on what happens with the infections during this opening.

Regarding beaches, Vázquez commented that baths will remain closed, but that beaches can be used for physical activities, such as surfing and other water sports. While she said that there are not enough police officers to monitor all these activities, she insisted that his executive order will not allow "day outings" on the beaches.

As for hotels, she informed that they will be able to provide the same services allowed to the rest of the population, such as restaurants, stores, and beaches to walk and exercise.

23% Will Not Reopen

Ramón Leal, former president of the Restaurants Association (Asore by its Spanish acronym), asserted that 23 percent of the 4,000 restaurants in Puerto Rico will opt to remain closed despite government permission to reopen.

"Initially, 23 percent do not have plans to open. What we don't know is when they will open. There are many who have businesses, who are getting ready, but they don't have plans to open during this phase," Leal explained.

Adolfo González, from the Shopping Centers Association, said, "our industry has an impact on the economy of $10 billion annually and represents 130,000 jobs."

"We are still quantifying losses from shopping centers, but wage losses until May 25 amount to $431 million in direct and indirect [jobs], and $270 million in revenue losses for the Treasury from tax collections," he added.

According to González, "there will be a residual effect in terms of reduced new store construction, loss of income and less taxes to file. We are still quantifying that."

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