Puerto Rico has seen 24 deaths from the coronavirus, as of this writing, and 620 confirmed cases. This is fewer than many states with similar populations. For example, Arkansas has 1,000 cases, Iowa has 1049, Utah has 1738, and Nevada has 2216.
One reason that Puerto Rico has fewer cases of COVID-19 than states with similar populations is that Governor Wanda Velazquez Garced implemented strong restrictions early in the epidemic: nonessential businesses closed and residents — including tourists – subject to curfews. People arriving in Puerto Rico must go into quarantine immediately, and visitors are being turned away. People must wear face masks when entering a business.
It is difficult to make decisions like these, especially when people are already worried about the economy. Of the states with similar populations listed above, three — Arkansas, Iowa, and Utah — are among the handful of states which have refused to issue stay-at-home orders.
New rulings are shutting down even more venues over the Easter holiday, and also laying out penalties for spreading “false information with the intention of creating confusion, panic, or public hysteria, with regards to any proclamation or executive order declaring an emergency, disaster or curfew.”
The governor’s decision to tighten restrictions is a response to the large number of people who were not following the initial guidance. It has not been universally admired. One commentator called it “dictatorial.” The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking an injunction against Puerto Rico, blocking some of the strongest measures.
For example, gatherings have been restricted to “nuclear families,” and the ACLU questions the government’s ability or right to determine who should be included in a nuclear family. While the restrictions specifically allow people to leave their homes in order to care for individuals in vulnerable situations, the ACLU claims that this exemption is not clearly defined. They name someone who must give insulin injections to an elderly parent in their case.
While this seems like an obvious exception to the curfew, the ACLU claims that police have been given too much power in the decision making. They stress that governments may take on extra powers in emergencies and keep those powers after the emergencies end. The ACLU has been watching for an opportunity to question COVID-19 restrictions, and Puerto Rico has provided them with a case.
Governor Velazquez has made numerous statements acknowledging economic concerns, but insisting that physical distancing is essential to avoid rapid spread of the virus. “They didn’t want to close thinking about the economy,” the Miami Herald quoted her as saying. “What did Trump say? ‘Let’s wait and see,’ and they didn’t shut down…What do you tell the people from New York or Florida or California who have lost so many family members?”
Puerto Rico will have greater challenges facing the pandemic than States. Funding is much lower for territories than for States, Puerto Rico has higher levels of chronic diseases and an aging population, and the healthcare system in Puerto Rico is already weaker than those in the States. Reducing the number of cases may be Puerto Rico’s only realistic option.