SAN JUAN — Known for its world-class beaches, laid-back vibe and status as a natural-disaster magnet, Puerto Rico is hoping to make another name for itself: innovator in pandemic travel.
Since mid-March, the commonwealth has been requiring visitors to endure one of the strictest medical screenings of any state or territory. Doctors in protective suits take their temperatures, grill them about their travel history and, in some cases, hustle them off for COVID-19 tests.
As the world wrestles with how to welcome back tourists without rolling out the red carpet for the coronavirus, Puerto Rico — bankrupt and battered by hurricanes and earthquakes — thinks its aggressive stance may be part of the solution. Of 77,000 passengers who have run the medical gantlet at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport near San Juan in the past two months, slightly more than 200 have tested positive.
“But there’s a problem. The travelers are already here,” said Puerto Rico National Guard Adjutant General Jose Reyes, who is spearheading the effort. Testing has to happen at the point of origin “if you want to make Puerto Rico a safe haven for tourism — and countries around the world are thinking about how to regenerate their tourism.” Puerto Rico won early praise in its fight against the coronavirus for shutting down all nonessential businesses and imposing a curfew March 16 — well ahead of many U.S. jurisdictions. And like Hawaii, it has also been encouraging tourists to stay home until the pandemic passes. Next week, Puerto Rico will allow retailers and restaurants to reopen, provided they follow certain guidelines, but the curfew remains.
Airports around the globe are imposing social-distancing rules and smothering passengers in hand sanitizer as they try to revive the moribund travel industry. But the idea of end-to-end COVID-19 testing, or creating what Reyes calls “safe-haven corridors for travelers,” still seems out of reach.
“Testing as currently performed is not a viable solution in an airport environment,” the International Air Transport Association, which represents almost 300 airlines, said in a statement. “However, if medical testing reliability improves, this is a measure which could be incorporated into the passenger process.”
Even faulty testing is better than nothing, Reyes argues. In Puerto Rico, inbound travelers who are running a temperature or fail the medical interrogation are given 15-minute COVID-19 tests. Those who test positive are administered a more accurate PCR molecular test. While the initial rapid tests are producing many false positives, trials run by the National Guard at nursing homes suggest there are few false negatives, Reyes said.
That’s crucial. If the rapid tests were given to passengers before they boarded, some people might get yanked off their flight unnecessarily, “but at least you would know that all the people on the plane are clean,” he said.
Tourism is a small but critical sector in the financially strapped commonwealth, representing about 6.5% of the economy. It’s an existential issue for the wider Caribbean, home to some of the planet’s most tourism-dependent economies.
In the Bahamas, travel and leisure account for 48% of GDP and 56% of all jobs, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Joy Jibrilu, the director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, said the pandemic has delivered a blow to the island’s economy “unlike anything experienced in decades.”
The country shut its airports to international travelers March 24 and isn’t planning to fully embrace tourism again until July 1. When it does, rubbing alcohol and surgical masks may be as important as pristine beaches and strong rum.
Hotel and tourism protocols that establish the Bahamas as a “safe and healthy destination” will be essential, she said in an interview. “This is an absolute baseline requirement for travel consideration.”
In the meantime, unemployment is likely to exceed 30% and “many closed businesses may not be able to open again once the restrictions are lifted,” she said.
Even if blanket testing is in place — and destinations scrubbed to perfection — it’s unclear when tourists will embrace leisure travel again, said Therese Turner-Jones, the Development Bank’s manager for the Caribbean Department.
“Several governments around the region are talking about some kind of June opening,” she said. “From where we sit, that’s difficult. Consumers are afraid, nationals are afraid, and there is no vaccine.”
With that in mind, Reyes has been pushing throughout the pandemic to make Puerto Rico as impregnable as possible. In April, at his urging, the commonwealth asked the Federal Aviation Administration to shut down flights from coronavirus hot spots, including New York, Florida and Chicago. The petition was denied, but the FAA did allow the commonwealth to route all incoming commercial traffic through San Juan’s principal airport to facilitate the health screening.
The number of confirmed cases in Puerto Rico surpassed the 3,000 mark Friday, with 126 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The Health Department said an additional 117 people had tested positive for the virus, the third time this month that more than 100 cases were detected in 24 hours. Despite the airport efforts, Puerto Rico has struggled to ramp up its testing and create a viable contact-tracing program.
Samir and Jazlynn Latif, Philadelphia natives who live in Puerto Rico, emerged from the airport on a recent weekday — neither had been required to do additional testing.
Samir, a 27-year-old DJ who travels frequently, said Puerto Rico was doing more than any airport they’ve visited recently on the East Coast. In Fort Lauderdale, where they had boarded, there were fewer controls, although many airlines are now requiring masks. “This is the safest we’ve felt at any airport,” he said.
Jazlynn, 21, was less impressed. While she was waiting to get her temperature checked and answer questions, she was forced to stand in a tight line that snaked around the baggage carousel. There was no attempt to maintain social distancing, she said.
“I don’t know how safe and secure it is during corona time,” she said. “They get an A for effort. Maybe a B minus.”