• The San Juan Daily Star

Business, individuals sue island gov’t over vax mandate

By The Star Staff

An ice cream maker and several individuals have sued the government in U.S. District Court to protest the latest executive order and a Health Department regulation that imposes vaccination verification measures on the private sector to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a suit filed earlier this week, Tropical Chill Corp., Alexandra Irizarry, Yasmín Vega, and Rene Matos, all of whom are workers, sought an injunction to stop the government from implementing the executive order citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and violation of constitutional liberties. The plaintiffs contend there is no scientific evidence supporting the government’s contention that unvaccinated individuals are to be blamed for COVID-19 deaths and are putting the public at risk.

“Vaccination should be treated as a primary means for providing protection against severe illness or death, especially for persons at high risk — not to reduce cases,” the lawsuit reads. “There is no scientific evidence whatsoever supporting the claim that non-vaccinated individuals are risking the public’s health in any way more than vaccinated people or that their lack of being vaccinated is a factor that facilitates the continuation of the pandemic or that causes a threat of a collapse of the healthcare system.”

“The vaccinated individuals have their own umbrella of protection, which continues to protect them from severe illness regardless of the person who transmitted the virus to them. Because COVID is here to stay, an indefinite state of emergency, with extraordinary government — and especially executive powers — that restrict individual liberties is unconstitutional,” the petition says.

The plaintiffs note that coercion and threats do not motivate or foster healthy behaviors; public health policy is effective only when it is based on education and dialogue.

“Contrary to public perception, and partially because of inaccurate or incomplete reporting, Puerto Rico’s low rates of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death, combined with its high vaccination rates and low burdening of the health care system — despite low institutional capacity across a variety of sectors — make COVID-vaccination mandates particularly unreasonable in the Commonwealth,” the plaintiffs said.

The plaintiffs, all private citizens (except Tropical Chill) are all residents of Puerto Rico and are all suffering damages from the challenged government actions, they said.

From July 30 to Aug. 19, 2021, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia enacted a series of executive orders (EOs) related to COVID-19 and the enforcement of vaccination mandates, including requiring people to be tested every week if they are not vaccinated.

“Rolling EOs not only violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights — they are arbitrary and capricious, and their means are not ‘closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of’ the plaintiffs’ rights, but also encroach on the separation of powers by exercising legislative powers that have either not been delegated or cannot be delegated to the executive under the Puerto Rico Constitution, further to the detriment of individual rights and freedoms that the rule of law is meant to protect,” they said.

COVID statistics further bolster the claim that now, 18 months after the pandemic’s onset, the commonwealth government cannot continue to have unfettered emergency powers that violate its citizens’ individual liberties, the suit says.

Puerto Rico reached over 60% full vaccination by May 31, 2021. And as of Aug. 26, the island Health Department reported that 69.6% of eligible recipients have been fully vaccinated and 78.4% of eligible recipients have received at least one dose. Now, with over 69.6% of the eligible population fully vaccinated, 80.6% of it with at least one dose, and 82% of 60 years old or older with at least one dose and 74% fully vaccinated, the healthcare system will not be stressed going forward, they said.

Puerto Rico currently ranks seventh among U.S. states and territories in percentage of total population fully vaccinated.

COVID tests are not as readily available in Puerto Rico as they are on the mainland, and the government is using its own lack of institutional capacity to justify imposing severe burdens on individuals, the plaintiffs said. They also noted that the executive orders are vague.

“The Rolling EOs have already been subject to different interpretations by different government agencies, burdening employees, business owners, travelers, and others in seemingly arbitrary ways,” they said. “The inconsistent and sometimes contradictory way in which the Rolling EOs’ requirements have been rolled out across agencies and businesses bolsters the arbitrariness of the government action.”

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