Volunteer of a medical team in a drivethru laboratory. (GFR Media)

Washington - The government of Puerto Rico received yesterday the $2.2 billion that Congress approved to finance spending related to the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the CARES Act, the Puerto Rican government must use that allocation for expenses related to the response to the virus that, amid serious confusion about the reliability of the data had caused 67 deaths on the island until yesterday.

"We will have the liquidity to mitigate the fiscal impact and promote different programs for Puerto Ricans," said Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, as she announced the disbursement of the funds, which would offset the loss of nearly $1.6 billion in revenue.

However, Vázquez Garced said they still have to wait for the U.S. Treasury guidelines and specifications on the use of that $2.2 billion package.

The money is expected to help the government finance immediate expenses related to the crisis, such as the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and virus detection tests. These funds could also serve as a relief to municipalities through the central government.

"The money can be used for any initiative to address the crisis," said Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González.

Former Chamber of Commerce President and CPA Kenneth Rivera said the Treasury Department's plan should include new economic development initiatives and additional direct payments to citizens.

Rivera said he hopes they would also be able to assist with the infrastructure of the Labor Department, which has been unable to immediately distribute the $600 weekly unemployment payments authorized by the CARES Act.

The $2.2 billion to help with the government's finances - an initiative that stemmed from the House Democratic bill - represents the largest single item the island has received through the CARES Act fund.

However, four weeks after the bill was signed into law, the Puerto Rican government is still waiting for the federal Treasury to authorize the local Treasury Department's plan to distribute the federal check promoted by the Donald Trump administration, which would allow most of those with a Social Security number to receive an average payment of $1,200.

Without the federal Treasury's approval, Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés said that this weekend they will only notify taxpayers that they will receive the check "in a few weeks."

The CARES act, among other things, may also grant Puerto Rico $615.7 million for the education system to deal with the coronavirus emergency, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

From that $615.7 package, $328.3 million would go to the elementary and high school system, which is mainly in the hands of the island's Education Department; $236 million for universities and colleges, and $51.2 million for an emergency fund controlled by the executive branch.

The Oversight Board - overseeing the island's public finances - has estimated the CARES Act would represent a $10 billion economic injection for Puerto Rico. Economist Gustavo Vélez believes that until this week, businesses on the island have lost some $8 billion in revenue since Governor Vázquez Garced ordered the shutdown of non-essential services and imposed a curfew.

Direct assistance programs through the CARES Act that have worked so far -to some extent on the island- although the first batch failed to benefit many applicants - are the small business loans, which total about $757 million, and have benefited 2,856 entrepreneurs.

As part of her economic stimulus plan, the governor implemented a $500 payment to self-employed individuals and $1,500 for small and medium businesses "that have ceased operations amid this crisis."

She has also implemented a $4,000 bonus for nurses in the public and private health systems, as well as $2,500 for health technicians.

Last week - although there is still no legislation or approval from the Board - Vázquez Garced also announced that she wants to authorize $500 for private sector workers and pensioners.


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