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Empty streets, bored tourists, anxious merchants: Puerto Rico amid coronavirus curfew

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Sequoia Mack and her friend flew from Baltimore to Puerto Rico Sunday night hoping to hit some clubs and celebrate her 21st birthday. Instead their night consisted of walking to a gas station to buy water — the only establishment they could find open amid an island-wide lockdown.

Puerto Rico, a sun-kissed U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, has taken some of the most extreme measures in the nation as it tries to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez on Sunday imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that will run through month’s end and ordered all non-essential businesses closed.

The island has five confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronovirus, and is awaiting results from at least four more, but Vázquez said the painful shutdown is needed to keep the virus under control.

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The announcement — made over the weekend and less than 24 hours after officials said a curfew was not in the works — caught many by surprise. But as of Monday, it seemed to be working.

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Large swaths of the city were eerily empty. In Old San Juan, most restaurants and all the noisy lively bars usually blaring salsa music were closed. And the port, often a riot of cruise-ship passengers and traffic, was a ghost town.

Under the governor’s decree, only restaurants that offer take-out, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and a few other “essential” businesses can stay open.

But theaters, museums, bars, malls, gyms, jewelry stores — most things that might attract tourists — are shuttered.

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Tourists also reported getting turned away from beaches and the popular El Yunque National Forest by police.

“We’re thinking about cutting our trip short,” Mack said less than 24 hours after arriving. “We’re not really experiencing what we came here for.”

Business owners that skirt the decree are subject to a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail. On Monday, police said they had fined one bar in the central city of Orocovis and carried out more than two dozen enforcement actions.

Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Pandemics

The coronavirus is just the latest malady to hit the island.

Staggering under a decade-long recession and still r ecovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017, the island was rocked by a series of earthquakes early this year that did extensive damage and scared away tourists.

Last week, as it saw its first cases of the coronavirus, the government declared a state of emergency, canceled schools through the end of the month and imposed a moratorium on cruise ships.

And then came Sunday’s even more dramatic measures.

José Ledesma-Fuentes, the chairman of Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Commerce, said the new regulations could wipe out some fragile businesses.

“There’s just so much uncertainty right now,” he said. “We’re facing a partial shutdown along with a curfew and we don’t know how many days or weeks this might last.”

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The decree lasts through March 30, but Ledesma-Fuentes said the business community is alarmed by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all large gatherings should be suspended for up to eight weeks.

“An eight-week shutdown would be devastating… for the economy of Puerto Rico,” he said.

While some companies might have business-interruption insurance, many of them exhausted that coverage to deal with the earthquakes.

Even so, he said most in the private sector recognize that the measures are necessary.

“Everyone understands that the most important issue is safety,” he said. And without concerted actions “this pandemic could hit Puerto Rico much harder.”

Pablo Jimenez, a 51-year-old lawyer, was taking advantage of the empty streets in Old San Juan to help a relative move. But he said the new rules are particularly painful for small businesses.

“It’s easy for the government to say they’re going to shut down because [public sector employees] will still get paid,” he said. “But if I don’t work I don’t get paid.”

Tourism Threat?

There are also worries about how effective the measures will truly be. While the island’s citizens have seen life grind to a halt, tourists from hard-hit areas in Florida and New York continue to arrive.

Mario, a European graduate student studying in the northeastern U.S., said he found a last-minute ticket from New York to San Juan for $30. (As the coronavirus has spread, airlines have been slashing prices.)

Mario, who didn’t want to give his last name, said his Ivy League university was sending students home, so he decided he’d rather spend the crisis in good weather than under quarantine back in Europe.

“Puerto Rico is already kind of surreal and seeing it during the coronavirus is even more surreal,” he said of the empty streets.

Although Gov. Vázquez had ordered the National Guard to screen all incoming passengers, that is not happening, Mario and several incoming travelers confirmed.

While Puerto Rico is one of the first to take such drastic measures, others will likely follow.

As Mack and her friend, Alexis Marshall, were having their pictures taken in front of a door painted with the Puerto Rican flag, they got a text message alerting them that Maryland is also shuttering restaurants and banning large gatherings due to COVID-19 fears.

That news suddenly made the lifeless — but sunny and beautiful — streets of Puerto Rico seem more appealing.

“I guess we might as well stay here,” Marshall said.

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