The high number of positive cases and scant awareness shown by some locals have led the government to request assistance from the armed forces.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—The increase in positive cases of COVID-19 since October has led Gov. Wanda Vázquez to activate the Puerto Rico National Guard by an executive order, effective Nov. 16 to Dec. 11, to help police enforce public compliance with established security measures.
Vázquez criticized some sectors of the public for not complying with safety regulations. “These decisions were not made on a whim,” she said.
Videos on social media have shown large gatherings of people, mostly on the weekends, and many of them were not wearing masks. The majority of the footage has been shot after 10 p.m., when the curfew begins.
Puerto Rico National Guard Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes clarified that in keeping with the Posse Comitatus Act, armed forces personnel in the United States are not required to enforce laws.
“Only a president can use armed forces to enforce martial law,” Reyes told The Americano. “It was declared during the recent California riots and at other times.”
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Having said this, National Guard officials assigned to various parts of the island will do their best to keep citizens complying with the safety measures. For example, if a soldier sees an unmasked person on the street, they will remind them of the importance of wearing a mask.
The National Guard will work in conjunction with the police, as the police will enforce laws when people do not respond to the soldiers’ guidance.
“The soldier will not leave the individual until the police arrive,” Reyes said.
Current measures limit the capacity at restaurants, casinos, gyms, churches, and other public spaces to 30%. Facial coverings and a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew remain mandatory. Beaches can only be used to exercise.
The decision to activate the National Guard was criticized by tourism-industry experts, who expressed how the military presence represents a deterrent for visitors.
The activation of the National Guard also responds to a decrease in local police force numbers. From 2011 to 2018, the number of officers dropped from 22,000 to 12,000. COVID has also affected the amount of available police officers. As of Nov. 16, 204 were infected and 492 were in quarantine.
Some of the latest videos show how people—mostly tourists—were dancing and congregating in La Placita de Santurce, a popular neighborhood square with bars and restaurants in San Juan.
“Just for the record, the role of the National Guard here is what’s essentially known as a show of force,” Reyes said. “The reality is many tourists are coming here to make the most of travel bargains. They might not even know there’s a curfew.”
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The general explained that the National Guard has helped Puerto Ricans in emergency situations such as Hurricane María, recent earthquakes, and the pandemic. “Our soldiers have brought testing materials to nursing homes and have implemented safety protocols at the airport,” Reyes said.
“The perception of militarization might be in the mind of some tourists—but for the people of Puerto Rico we have always been perceived as a friendly hand,” Reyes said. “We will always continue to be a friendly hand in ensuring the health of Puerto Ricans.”