(Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Although they found the measure commendable, executives from the Retailers Association (ADC, Spanish acronym) and the Restaurants Association (ASORE, Spanish acronym) regretted the short time they had to react and prepare for closures following the curfew.

Yesterday, for the first time since the creation of the Commonwealth, the commercial and business sectors of Puerto Rico were brought to their knees by an invisible enemy: the COVID-19.

This happened when Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced ordered to suspend, as of 6:00 yesterday afternoon, all non-essential commercial activity for two weeks.

Through Executive Order 2020-23, Vázquez Garced also established that 3.2 million people will only be able to leave their homes to work - if their work was exempted from the closure and curfew - or to cover three specific needs: food, health, and access to money.

Both measures will be in force until March 30.

"We are aware that the action we are taking will have collateral effects on our economy. Protecting our population at this time of crisis will allow us to more than recover tomorrow what we stopped earning today," said Vázquez Garced. The governor's message came some seven hours before businesses and shops closed and all non-essential government operations were suspended. Health, safety and critical infrastructures such as water, electricity, and ports are among the essential services that keep operating.

The commercial sector reacts

Business sector leaders, such as Lymaris Otero and Gadiel Lebrón, executive directors at ADC and Asore, respectively, learned about the executive order when they heard the governor's message.

After midday, the government made the order public, but as the business community sought to comply with the order, the published document left more questions than answers.

"We understand that it is commendable. But a decision like this comes on a Sunday, with little time to react. We will do our best to comply with it," said Otero.

The day before, Vázquez Garced met with several business organizations to discuss how to deal with COVID-19.

Otero indicated he was at the meeting. There, according to the executive, they were told the government was evaluating closing companies and businesses to deal with the virus, but they understood that it was a measure under evaluation.

Total or partial closure

The executive order divided the companies into two large groups. Those businesses or companies with a high flow of people or not essential will be fully closed. That is shopping malls, cinemas, discos, concert halls, theaters, gambling halls, casinos, amusement parks, gyms, bars and similar.

Hardware stores, law or accounting service firms will also close, and department stores will have to take steps to separate the food and drug areas from other items.

Food-related companies and shops - such as supermarkets and restaurants, pharmacies, medical offices, as well as gas stations, private safety firms, financial and telecommunication companies, can open partially.

"We submitted written recommendations, as requested, and we woke up with this," Lebrón said.

According to Lebrón, Hurricanes Irma and María became a lesson for many companies on the island.

"Most of ASORE members are preparing to offer 'delivery' and 'take-out' services," Lebrón said. "The call for prudence is to keep people off the streets and prevent the spread."

But at the same time, according to Lebrón, the question repeating yesterday in the multiple teleconference meetings to implement the executive order was what will happen to employees.

Yesterday, employers did not see clearly whether they could dismiss employees or would be required to compensate them even if they did not work, or whether they could suspend operations and charge the days to vacation leave.

"If the executive order intends to make a complete closure of business activity in Puerto Rico until March 30, 2020, that could be unconstitutional," said attorney Jaime Sanabria Montañez. "We have to analyze it calmly."

"Something like this has never happened here before. The closest thing was after Hurricane María, but if businesses closed for more than a week it was because María hit us hard," said the former president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Certified Public Accountants Kenneth Rivera Robles. "Here, we are talking about two weeks, and that expecting the situation will stabilize because, if something else happens, it could take longer," he said.

In that sense, Rivera Robles added that for many businesses and companies, the executive order comes without businesses technologically or financially prepared to face two weeks closed.

"Some businesses will not be able to get out of this," he said, noting that until yesterday, there were no measures known to help the sector except those that would be available due to the declaration of national emergency at the federal level.

For Otero, implementing a shutdown like the one ordered yesterday has too many ramifications. He explained that when dealing with organizations with a significant number of employees and diverse schedules, it requires operational adjustments and modifying them may take time.

Otero said that the ADC recommended that La Fortaleza make the executive order more flexible so that technology-related businesses can remain in operation, as well as those businesses that provide support in an emergency, such as hardware stores or those that sell electric generators.

"Our workforce is not prepared, and not all companies can resort to working from home," said Otero.


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