Puerto Rico Covid restrictions have eased up. Journalist Laura N. Pérez Sánchez writes about her experiences going to the beach for the first time.
Puerto Rico Covid Laura N. Pérez Sanchez
At Laguna del Condado, a few swimmers cool off from the heat plaguing San Juan in late May, when Puerto Rican students usually start their summer vacations. Photo credit: Laura N. Pérez Sánchez. 

San Juan, PR — I just returned from taking my first dip in the ocean, after the Puerto Rican government began to relax the restrictions that have kept us indoors for the past ten weeks. I walked to the beach closest to my house, and on the half-hour stroll I encountered several walkers with masks on their faces or around their necks, and suspicion in their eyes.

Quarantine time can be measured in stages: first, disbelief at the pandemic itself; then, solidarity as we discovered and gave names to the terrible effects of confinement. Puerto Rico was one of the first countries to impose a near-lockdown on its citizens. Later, the incessant complaints about the Puerto Rican government began to pile up — one day we’d discuss new corruption allegations, and the next, the most recent ineptitude. Each phase leads to the next, like a math class in which you have to master the first skill before advancing to the next level.

And with all these changes and the easing of quarantine in Puerto Rico —as in other parts of the world— we enter a new phase that I call COVID-shaming.

At the end of last week, the governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, announced the reopening of most sectors of the Puerto Rican economy as of Tuesday, May 26, 72 days after lockdown began. But the curfew that has been in place since the first day of quarantine will not be altered: the government forbids being out between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. 

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Puerto Rico Covid Laura N. Pérez Sanchez
The Puerto Rican government ordered citizens to wear face masks when they are outside their homes. Not everyone abides by the guideline, but some do so even while exercising in the Caribbean sun. Photo credit: Laura N. Pérez Sánchez.  Photo credit: Laura N. Pérez Sánchez

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It was in anticipation of that opening that Governor Vázquez announced that she would relax the rules that had even prohibited us islanders from dipping our feet in the sea. And with all these changes and the easing of quarantine in Puerto Rico —as in other parts of the world— we enter a new phase that I call COVID-shaming.

Official government figures indicate that, as of this writing, 3,260 cases of Sars-CoV-2 have been identified in Puerto Rico and 129 people have died here from Covid-19. For a nation of around 3.2M residents, these figures look relatively mild compared to most American states; the problem is that our government has failed to properly collect data on the epidemic.

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First, the Puerto Rican government admitted that to obtain the figure of total positive cases, they had simply added up all of the positive tests, regardless of whether more than one corresponded to the same patient. That is, if I took a diagnostic test that confirmed that I was a carrier of the virus and, two weeks later, I repeated it to find out if I could stop isolating, but I still tested positive, the government added both results to its tally of cases in the country.

Laura N. Pérez Sánchez Laura N. Pérez Sanchez
On Tuesday, May 26, most businesses in Puerto Rico —including those for pet grooming— were able to resume operations, although they must follow protocols to minimize the spread of coronavirus. Photo credit: Laura N. Pérez Sánchez. 

Even though the Puerto Rican Department of Health assured us that it corrected the numbers after recognizing the error, the statistics it offers are not very useful for understanding the contagion curve, since, as other states and the United States Centers for Disease Control have done, it adds up the positive results of both diagnostic tests and tests for antibodies, which don’t measure the same thing.

And so, with that picture of uncertainty and statistical blindness, we boricuas who had been following the strict stay-at-home measures prepared to leave confinement. Some do it voluntarily, while others are forced to get back to a job that must be done face to face or because they have no choice but to take to the streets to make a living.

Craving a dip in the ocean like never before in my life, I decided to go to the beach, knowing full well that if there were crowds, I would have to turn back.

Governor Vázquez reported that although we’re not yet permitted to spend the day lying in the sand at the beach, people could visit them to swim or exercise, without the usual coolers or groups of friends.

As soon as this decision was announced, social media in Puerto Rico exploded with a somewhat anticipated tirade. There was no end to the predictions that, throughout the weekend, our shores would be crowded with beachgoers, who would arrive with typical aluminum pots loaded with arroz con pollo (a delicious and hearty lunch for a beach day, commonly used to single out the customs of our poorest families). People anticipated dirty beaches with beer cans and facemasks strewn about.

As we say in my country, he who seeks shall find. And the Covid-shaming killjoys soon hunted down the digital evidence they sought: photos of beaches, who knows where, crowded with people and without the recommended physical distancing; images of a mile-long row of cars on a very popular beach road in Puerto Rico (where not a single person was to be seen).

Craving a dip in the ocean like never before in my life, I decided to go to the beach, knowing full well that if there were crowds, I would have to turn back. With that possibility in my pocket, I made my way under a sun that burned me as if, because of the confinement, it no longer recognized my Caribbean skin.

Puerto Rico Covid
Public, state-run beach facilities remain closed and it is forbidden to spend the day in the sand, but people can visit the beaches, such as El Escambrón, in San Juan, to take a dip and exercise… without crowding. Photo credit: Laura N. Pérez Sánchez.

I decided to approach the beach from the least accessible area, anticipating that people, as usual, would bunch up near the main entrance. After skirting the ruins of a sports complex that blocks the coastline, I climbed a hill, which, in addition to being a hill, is also a breakwater. It’s the perfect vantage point, since it offers an unobstructed view of the expansive beach, the rock in the middle of the sea where a Puerto Rican flag flies and, at the end of the horizon, the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. And there, between El Morro, the flag and the sand, and despite the auguries about the crowds, what I found were eight solitary swimmers who, separated by dozens of feet, enjoyed, as I did, a first pandemic dip in the sea.

This article was translated by Erin Goodman.

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Laura N. Pérez Sánchez is a Puerto Rican investigative journalist who has developed her career in her native city of San Juan. Laura has worked both as a reporter and editor, and she also enjoys writing chronicles and in-depth reports. In 2018, while working as deputy news editor for the newspaper El Nuevo Día, she was selected as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and as one of three inaugural Abrams Nieman Fellows for Local Investigative Journalism. Thanks to this scholarship, Laura returned to Puerto Rico after her year at Harvard to carry out an independent journalistic investigation into the island’s reconstruction after Hurricane Maria, which she hopes to publish soon. Laura recently released her own newsletter, Particular, through which she aims for more direct contact with her readers, while sharing some of her favorite content, which offers different or complementary perspectives on public interest topics and current events.

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