Health, Justice departments oppose banning face masks from beaches

House Natural Resources panel holds hearing on bill that seeks to address littering problem

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

The Natural Resources, Environmental Affairs and Recycling Committee of the island House of Representatives, chaired by Rep. Edgardo Feliciano Sánchez, on Thursday took up House Bill (HB) 316, which seeks restrictions on the use of face masks, in addition to the use of disposable gloves on beaches and other bodies of water in Puerto Rico.

HB 316, authored by Rep. Ángel Matos García, faced its first public hearing before the committee, where Alexis Oquendo Vargas, the Health Department’s infection control and prevention education project coordinator, who appeared on behalf of Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado López, objected to the bill.

Oquendo Vargas said that instead of prohibiting the use of face masks, as they are required by the current executive order to control the coronavirus pandemic, “an educational campaign [should] be established to encourage and raise awareness among the general population about the proper disposal of all solid waste in recreational areas, such as beaches.”

“An adequate number of trash receptacles must be available and accessible to visitors at beaches and/or resorts,” the education program coordinator said. “It is important that these trash receptacles are maintained in adequate condition without excessive accumulation of waste.”

“We believe that, at this historic moment, establishing an absolute ban on the use of masks and disposable gloves on beaches, spas and bodies of water in Puerto Rico is primarily a public health matter,” Oquendo Vargas added.

Other agency representatives summoned to the public hearing echoed the Health Department’ s declarations, such as the Department of Justice Legislation Division Director Iván Soto, who represented Justice Secretary-designate Domingo Emmanuelli.

“If the legislative intent of HB 316 is not to absolutely prohibit the use of face masks or disposable gloves in all spas, beaches and bodies of water, without exception, it should be clarified to which locations and activities it is limited,” Soto said. “If, on the other hand, the application is to be extended to all types of activity, we recommend that this honorable committee seek the comments of the agencies concerned.”

Meanwhile, Matos García clarified at the public hearing that HB 316 does not seek to promote the non-use of masks on and around bodies of water, but rather the proper disposal of such items.

Gov’t agencies support foam cooler ban on beaches

The House Committee also took up HB 442, authored by Matos García, which seeks to ban the use of polystyrene coolers, better known as “foam” coolers, due to the current excessive accumulation of solid waste.

Unlike HB 316, the bill received deference from government agencies such as the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC) and the island Justice Department.

Laura Díaz, who represented DNER Secretary Rafael Machargo, announced that the agency endorses HB 442.

“The public policy that the bill intends to implement is fundamental to address the problem that disposable polystyrene or foam products represent to our natural resources,” she said.

Soto added that the Justice Department “finds no legal impediment limiting the Legislative Assembly’s power to prohibit the use of foam coolers at Puerto Rico’s beach resorts.”

The PRTC, meanwhile, recommended that the ban on foam coolers be extended to all bodies of water in Puerto Rico that are used recreationally.

“There is no doubt that polystyrene coolers represent a problem for our environment, as they affect the landscape, wildlife, as well as the diversity of marine life,” the agency said.

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