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Puerto Rico activating National Guard to fight COVID-19, unarmed troops to help enforce curfew

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s governor announced Friday that she will activate additional members of the National Guard to help enforce a curfew aimed at curbing a rise in COVID-19 cases and other measures, including once again closing beaches to everyone except those doing exercise.

“We are going to patrol with the police,” said Army Maj. Gen. José Reyes, the adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard in a Friday evening interview with Military Times. “But the Puerto Rico National Guard will not detain or arrest any civilians.”

The troops "are not going to be armed,” he said. According to Reyes, the patrolling Guard forces will play a public information role. “Our job [is] to ensure that the message is delivered and everybody is following that executive order.”

The mission will require “hundreds” of troops to assist police across the island’s 78 municipalities, said Reyes. He told Military Times that the final number of additional troops was not yet determined.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez also said the government will limit capacity at restaurants, casinos, gyms, churches and other places to 30 percent.

Reyes said the patrolling Guardsmen will be checking restaurants to ensure they are in compliance with the capacity limit. “It cannot be 31 percent; it cannot be 35 percent," he added.

The new restrictions start Nov. 16 and will remain in place until Dec. 11. Face masks and a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew remain mandatory.

“We will not under any circumstance allow our health system to be placed at risk,” she said. “There are many who have lowered their guard and have not understood that this pandemic is still with us.”

Vázquez also urged people across Puerto Rico to be extremely cautious during the holiday season, encouraging families to get together via Zoom. She said that if violations continue into mid-December, she would close down more businesses and implement more restrictive measures.

Reyes, the Guard general, said the curfew patrols are but a new front in an ongoing battle for the Puerto Rico National Guard. The organization has been active since mid-March fighting the virus in a variety of ways, including more than 1.2 million medical screenings at airports, mass testing for first responders, and an “informational campaign” during the island’s spring lockdown.

The recent surge in cases, though, “forced the governor” to take sterner action, said Reyes.

Health Department Secretary Lorenzo González said the island is seeing more than 600 infections a day, a number he said could rise to 1,200 or more by late December. He also noted that the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has spiked in the last month.

“We have outbreaks and infections in every corner,” he said.

The island of 3.2 million people has reported more than 40,500 confirmed cases, more than 35,400 suspected ones and more than 900 deaths.

The new measures come as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from hurricanes, earthquakes and an economic and financial crisis that began more than a decade ago.

“These are difficult times,” said Manuel Laboy, secretary of the island’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce. “This is causing an economic crisis without precedent.”

He said local officials are talking with the U.S. government and a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances to find additional ways to help owners of small- and medium-sized businesses hit by the pandemic.

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