Puerto Rico’s Coronavirus Crackdown: Justified Or Unconstitutional?

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There are certain countries where speaking out against the rulers is punishable by jail, fine, or even death. As a world traveler, I don’t comment on these governments. I’m not from that country and I’m not trying to end up, like I once wrote for TPG, Locked Up Abroad. Despite the occasional ignoramus who confuses Puerto Rico with Costa Rica, most know that this commonwealth is part of the United States. Accordingly, Puerto Rican citizens are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Unlike the federal government, the Puerto Rican government swiftly took proactive steps to limit the spread of coronavirus. We were one of the first in the country to implement a stay-at-home order and one of the first to have a curfew. Now, the balancing act between protecting public health and infringing on individual liberties is becoming increasingly blurry (see Social Distance Yourself from Misinformation). The stay-at-home order is now in effect for all 24 hours of the day. We are only allowed to leave the house every other day based on our license plate number for essential activities like going to the pharmacy or grocery store. This begs the question, how do people who rely on public transportation adhere to this law?

As a paranoid recluse, I have only left the gated community of Rio Mar once in the last six weeks so that measure does not affect me (see What’s a Travel Blog Without Travel?). What is alarming is that residents are being threatened with arrest and fines if they leave their house to exercise even if they are socially distancing themselves. Por ejemplo, I was on Rio Mar’s isolated beach last Sunday. The closest person besides a family with their dogs walking was a helicopter flying overhead. Out of nowhere, a police officer came, flashing his handcuffs, and threatening to arrest me if I didn’t go home immediately. To be clear, this wasn’t an “If TPOL gets Corona, I get Corona situation” with young college co-eds going wild. The Wyndham Resort is closed through April. There are no guests. The entire compound is deserted. The only threat of Covid-19 was from the police officer who was standing too close to me. I went home and checked the stay at home order. Obviously, I need to take more Spanish lessons (see TPOL The Polyglot: How To Learn Multiple Languages) because Google translated that the beaches are indeed off limits.

Fair enough, but that does not explain what happened next. I received a notification from the community manager that leaving the house even for exercise might be illegal. I messaged fellow residents who scoffed at the idea that taking a walk would incur the wrath of the police. I went for a run that night. However, like the time I snuck into Pleasure Island in Disney with a fake ID and being interrogated and subsequently released by Orange County Police, I could not enjoy myself. Too nervous at the thought of going to a Puerto Rican jail, I went home. The next morning I heard that one of my neighbors was stopped by the police while riding his bicycle within the compound. Like my beach experience, he was also threatened with arrest.

I can understand shutting down the beach but there is no state in the country where exercise, so long as social distancing is followed, has been outlawed. Then I read this article from the Miami Herald titled, “Critics blast Puerto Rico ‘dictatorial decree’ as coronavirus claims youngest victim,” and now I’m actually concerned about what happens next. Read the following:

On Monday, Gov. Wanda Vázquez assumed even more sweeping powers, signing an amendment to the Public Security law that makes breaking the curfew — or future curfews — punishable with six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. In addition, it makes it illegal for media outlets or social media accounts “to transmit or allow the transmission” of “false information with the intention of creating confusion, panic, or public hysteria, with regards to any proclamation or executive order declaring an emergency, disaster or curfew.” If the false information causes more than $10,000 in damage to public-sector finances or leads to injury or damage of physical property, it will be considered a fourth-degree criminal offense, the governor’s office said.

Luís Davila-Colón, a prominent radio host and author, accused the governor of drifting into authoritarianism. He said, “You cannot govern through dictatorial decrees, scolding, secrets, muzzling, blockades or threatening to imprison your subjects,” he wrote on Twitter.

Consider TPOL muzzled.

No comment. I said no comment! That applies to any of you leaving a comment.

10 COMMENTS

  1. At least the police don’t have the right to shoot you as in the Philippines, but maybe we shouldn’t give them ideas. Autocrats often use emergencies as cover for nefarious rules used to consolidate control and abridge rights.

  2. This is what happens when you give government too much power. In fact the US Constitution and the rights (1st, 2nd, etc.) in that document give us our freedom. No doubt there will be many lawsuits as we come out of this current situation. Being on a beach is no more dangerous than standing on your patio or balcony, less so I would imagine as long as you are practicing social distancing. It is also far more dangerous to your health to remain inside for many days without going out. Sure grocery stores are dangerous but outdoor running, golfing, walking, etc. is not. I would say that Tennis is more dangerous if both sides handle the same tennis ball at any time and only slightly less dangerous than say basketball. As a risk manager and travel agent I’ve seen where people have made mistakes and try to use the current panic as a vehicle to overstep their powers and take away our freedom and even livelihood. I’ve also seen where people like this will criticize an agency or politician for what they deem as a lack of action but then turn around and do things like order the police to arrest people on a deserted beach.

    • Crazy time. I’m too paranoid to play basketball. Golf seems safe to me, especially because my putting has been off. If it doesn’t go into the hole, where is the risk!

  3. Unlike with the federal government and United States, Puerto Rico is a tiny island smaller than the state of Connecticut. Texas is 74 times larger than Puerto Rico. The federal government took quick action to close travel from China on the last day of January and closed travel from Europe before any major country did. Actual stay at home orders were handled by individual counties and states. What’s necessary in one state like Wyoming is not the same as in New York. That’s why local government and states are first responders and not the federal government. That’s not how it’s set up and nor should be. I think the federal government did a great job with encouraging states to follow guidelines and it did a good job of pushing for stimulus. Those $1200 checks will come in handy.

    It’s very concerning that government agents and cops around the country and in Puerto Rico are infringing on fundamental rights. It’s one thing to require that people stay away from others who don’t want contact but cops are arresting people for contact with others that is consensual and voluntary. I really wish people did practice isolation at home and practice social distancing but to arrest people for consensual contact no matter the number is a crime against personal freedom. No matter what dire circumstances there are, no one should be denied access to people they want to associate with in their own homes.

  4. Firm resolve and action in a timely fashion can make a huge difference. California and New York had a similar number of cases at the beginning of March. Due to stringent rules, California has had around 1/10th of New York’s total cases. The rules aren’t fun, but given people’s disinclination to follow strong suggestions or toothless dictates, I’d say your governor is doing the right thing.

      • I’m genuinely sorry if I upset you since you’re the one living through this rather than me, although I think the rancor was a little uncalled for. I presented facts and drew what I thought was a fair conclusion. You obviously differ in your assessment. Why? This is a genuine question, not some weird taunt. I try to keep an open mind and am willing to change my mind if there’s a rational reason to do so.

    • NY and CA weren’t told they can’t go outside to exercise. I may see ten people during the week in my community and that’s before this pandemic. Now I may see five people all week. Keeping me and anyone who practices safe sex locked up is ridiculous. Police are tasked with protecting the community. Explain how coming up to me makes me more safe? Explain how arresting someone for riding a bike makes that person more safe when locked in a jail cell? As I wrote in the article, this isn’t Florida spring break. No one is near anyone. That’s the point of the lockdown order. If the government wants people to stay apart, they should follow their own advice.

      Suggesting that government knows best is dangerous and scary. We are giving away liberties now and they won’t be restored in the future “for our own protection”. So I stand by my comment.

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