Puerto Rico’s monthlong lockdown to try to keep the coronavirus at bay is going into overtime.
On Saturday, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said she will be keeping nonessential businesses shut through at least May 3, even as she eased a nighttime curfew and carved out a few more exceptions.
In a nationally televised address, Vázquez said the U.S. territory will have to be very careful with how it reopens business so that “all the sacrifices we’ve made so far aren’t lost.”
A U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, the island was among the first U.S. jurisdictions to take dramatic social-distancing measures — shutting down most of the economy, closing beaches and banning public gathering on March 16.
Those regulations were due to expire Monday, but with the peak of the coronavirus crisis in Puerto Rico still a few weeks off, an extension of the quarantine was widely expected.
Among the changes to the regime are that gasoline stations will be able to operate Monday through Saturday and hardware stores can operate Friday and Saturday. In addition, the 7 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew will now begin at 9 p.m. And the restriction on the number of weekdays that cars can circulate will be lifted.
Also, some businesses will be allowed to open on April 14 exclusively to process payroll.
But nonessential workers are still being asked to stay home 24 hours a day with few exceptions, like going to the grocery store and the pharmacy. And everyone is required to wear a face mask while in those establishments.
The details of the new executive order are expected to be released late Saturday or Sunday.
Vázquez said she was making the changes based on the recommendations of both her medical and business advisers.
Despite the easing of some restrictions, the extended quarantine is seen as a necessary but cruel blow to the island’s economy. Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, Puerto Rico had a higher unemployment rate and more poverty than any U.S. state.
While it has been praised for taking dramatic social-distancing measures, it has struggled to ramp up testing and develop a contact-tracing program, seen as key elements in stopping the coronavirus.
Since confirming its first case on March 13, the island has reported 788 cases and 42 deaths, most of them concentrated around the capital of San Juan.
On Saturday, health experts said the quarantine program has been working, noting that Puerto Rico has fewer cases than any U.S. state of a similar size. Connecticut and Utah, for example, have 10,538 and 2,207 cases, respectively.
But testing for the coronavirus on the island has been anemic at best. Puerto Rico has conducted just 7,709 tests — the lowest per-capita ratio of any U.S. state or territory except for the Mariana Islands and America Somoa, according to data pulled from the Covid Tracking Project and the U.S. Census.
Island officials have also been trying to stop the importation of new cases. There has been a moratorium on cruise ships in place since last month, and Vázquez recently petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to block flights arriving from six mainland coronavirus hot spots: New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Illinois.
Last month she had asked to halt all incoming flights, a request the FAA denied. However, the agency did allow the island to close all but its main airport in San Juan to commercial airlines — making it easier to screen incoming passengers. In addition, all those arriving on the island are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.