Pierluisi prioritizes tackling COVID-19 pandemic
Governor-elect urges ‘striking the right balance’ once he assumes office
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Better scientific data gathering to improve executive decisions and a better contract tracing system to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those are some of the main priorities that governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi mentioned during an interview with the Star, while assuring that he is monitoring all the developments during the national emergency.
In order to take action against the novel coronavirus, Pierluisi, who hasn’t been officially certified as governor yet, appointed health adviser and incoming transition committee member Carlos Mellado and Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust board member Daniel Colón Ramos to chair his Scientific Coalition to, advise, gather and provide “the necessary scientific data to make balanced and reasonable decisions in dealing with the pandemic.”
“I consistently criticized the lack of data in the past, and all of the scientists and doctors that I have recruited have impeccable credentials and I know they will go out of their way, on a voluntary basis, to obtain the data, to gather the data, to analyze the data and, in little ways, we will improve the way we’re dealing with the virus,” the governor-elect said.
When the Star asked the governor-elect if he would include educators and science writers in the coalition to communicate its efforts to the general population, Pierluisi said the coalition will have committees in which members and representatives “from a wide spectrum of our society” will be able to contribute, such as the manufacturing industry, the construction and retail sectors, restaurants, and others.
“We’re making sure that once we start reopening, both the economy and the education system, we do it in a way that is justified based on the available scientific data,” Pierluisi said. “That, to me, is critical. That’s exactly the way that president-elect Joe Biden is operating. They’re in touch with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], they’re in touch with all the scientific players.”
The New Progressive Party president said his intentions with the coalition are also to determine if the executive orders to be issued once he assumes office will take a regional approach in dealing with the virus.
“At the same, my judgment is that the measures that you should be taking, or imposing, or requiring at indoor facilities, should be different than the ones that you should require outdoors, and this is based on my judgment, needless to say,” Pierluisi said. “I’ll be consulting experts to make sure that my vision is on target.”
The Star asked if he would deal with the pandemic differently from Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced. The governor-elect answered by saying her decision to implement stricter capacity limitations was the right move.
“I believe it was a good move on the part of governor Wanda Vázquez to activate the [Puerto Rico] National Guard to support our police forces and enforce the existing executive order,” Pierluisi said.
In addition, he said he did not “want to start second-guessing,” preferring to see where the island stands on Dec. 11, which would be the current executive order’s end date.
“We should strike the right balance. This is not health versus economy, this is not health versus education, they go in tandem, they’re intertwined; if you destine the majority of the people to poverty, you’re affecting their health, your impact would be causing their death,” Pierluisi said. “We’ve been hit quite strongly by this pandemic and it is having a very negative effect on our economy and the people’s well-being, and every one of those fatalities is really unfortunate, and I hope that we start doing better.”
Expects to wrap up island debt restructuring process
Regarding the Financial Oversight and Management Board, and Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring process and negotiating with the commonwealth’s creditors, the governor-elect said he has no objection to trying to reach an acceptable deal, “the sooner the better.”
Pierluisi also told the Star he has “no objection to using mediation to try to reach that deal.”
“If those efforts fail, I will be the first one who will be encouraging the Board to submit a revised plan of adjustment to the court, having at least one of the classes of impaired creditors supporting it,” he said. “The PROMESA [Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act] law allows for that.”
Meanwhile, Pierluisi said a priority for him is “that whatever debt the board proposes on behalf of the commonwealth, whatever adjustment to the debt the board proposes to the government, is something that the government can afford.”
“I’ll be looking for sustainability, I’ll be looking for affordability in this process; it is unquestionable that at least half of the debt that the government of Puerto Rico accumulated and owes was intended to finance capital improvement projects,” he said. “I’m summarizing here, but to expect to be paying no debt is not realistic. We will end up having to pay some of the debt that the government incurred.”
The governor-elect told the Star that although the precise number should be negotiated with both the oversight board and creditors, “it’s in the interest of all to have a number that the government can live with because we don’t want to face another restructuring scenario, another default at any point in the future.”
“We want to make sure to close this chapter and that we never have to go through it again. PROMESA doesn’t envision having a second shot at restructuring our debt; it’s simply a one-time process,” he said. “You restructure the debt, you balance your budget on an ongoing basis for four years, and then regain adequate access to the markets and the Board is gone. That’s the way PROMESA was written.”
Something that doesn’t please him, Pierluisi said, is that, after four years, the island is still in the process of “trying to restructure the debt.”
“We should wrap this up,” he said. “We should do it, the sooner the better, so we don’t spend as much time as we have spent in the past on lawyers and consultants, just for the heck of trying to reach a deal. Let’s do it, let’s get our act together, let’s act with a sense of urgency.”