• The Star Staff

Hotel industry demands ‘balance,’ says another lockdown might collapse economy

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Members of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association (PRHTA) demanded Thursday that the island government and law enforcement agencies be more strict with handling the COVID-19 pandemic because, they said, the industry cannot endure another lockdown, which could result in permanent closure for many enterprises.

During a press conference at the San Juan Marriott Hotel and Stellaris Casino in the Condado district of San Juan, entrepreneurs from the destination industry gathered, complying with safety measures against the coronavirus, to call on the government to “find a balance between health and the economy,” PRHTA Board Director Pablo Torres said.

Torres added that, according to data from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., the public health emergency has caused the island’s tourism sector to lose as much as $231 million.

“We are on the verge of a total collapse of the economy if a total shutdown takes effect again,” Torres said as he requested that the government enforce the rules stated in the most recent executive order issued to address the public health emergency. “Our industry has already been affected enough in past months; layoffs have been in the thousands.”

Likewise, PRHTA President Clarisa Jiménez said the tourism sector has been “demonized” due to assumptions that COVID-19 hotspots are the result of their activities, even though a recent report from the Municipal Case Investigation and Contact Tracing System reported that 67 percent of the coronavirus outbreaks have been community-based.

Jiménez also urged the central government to enforce the laws and measures at the alternative independent accommodation enterprises and short-term rental apartments where both local and international visitors have stayed largely free of supervision while they fulfill quarantine requirements. She said the visitors gather in those places without taking any safety precautions and in some cases become infected with the coronavirus.

“We have said this before, but we want to be more energetic now in requesting that there has to be enforcement. We have an industry that is fully complying with all protocols locally and with the brands that the hotels work for,” Jiménez said. “We need the government to tackle where the actual problem is.”

In order to help both the public health and tourism sectors coexist, the PRHTA suggested increasing law enforcement by activating the island National Guard, releasing a mass advertising campaign to call on citizens and visitors to comply with the rules from the executive order enacted in response to the pandemic, increase molecular screening tests and be expeditious with the results to determine the coronavirus’ behavior with accuracy and strengthen the case monitoring program to obtain precise and trustworthy data.

San Juan Water and Beach Club Hotel CEO Joaquín Bolívar III said that “when the … Health secretary [Lorenzo González Feliciano] announced considering another total lockdown, it drove my employees into a panic as another layoff was expected.”

“It will create an absolute crisis on this island, because we already know what’s happening with the government’s healthcare plan, 80,000 jobs might get lost, and once they lose their jobs, they will jam up the public healthcare system,” Bolívar III said.

Holiday Inn Developments President Miguel Vega said meanwhile that “public health experts, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have suggested the importance of mass testing and contact tracing [to control COVID-19].”

“If you don’t have that, you can’t make the right choices,” he said.

When a member of the press asked why, with Puerto Rico having the second-most COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Caribbean, according to the WHO, and being the U.S. territory with the highest rates of cases and deaths, according to the CDC, this data does not justify a total lockdown, Bolivar III responded that the government has not proved “with concrete data” that the island’s hotel and resort properties are the problem.

“The last thing we want is for our employees and guests to get sick. We have heads of households and family members that need to be safe,” he said. “Any businesses that belong to our association and that do not comply with safety measures against COVID-19, shut them down.”

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