Puerto Rico unveils record $787M package to fight COVID-19

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FILE – In this Aug. 21, 2019 file photo, Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vazquez holds a press conference to announce new administrative appointments at the governor’s official residence La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s fragile economy is facing an uncertain future after Vazquez rejected on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, a settlement announced late Sunday with bondholders that would reduce the U.S. territory’s public debt by 70%. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico on Monday announced a record $787 million financial package to help alleviate the economic impact of the new coronavirus in the U.S. territory.

The package is bigger than any announced so far by U.S. states.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez said measures include a 90-day moratorium for mortgages as well as car, personal and commercial loans that will not affect people’s credit. She also announced a flurry of bonuses, including ones ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 for nurses, police and other emergency and medical workers.

In addition, the government will invest $250 million in tablets, software and other items to help the island’s Department of Education improve virtual learning amid a two-week curfew that began the night of March 15, she said.

Vázquez said the island’s more than 134,000 public sector employees will still be paid during the emergency and that the government will offer a $1,500 handout for small- and medium-sized businesses with 50 employees or less that don’t qualify for federal help, as well as a $500 cash handout for Puerto Rico’s nearly 170,000 self-employed workers.

“We’re going to win this war,” she said.

The island is struggling through a 13-year recession in addition to the blows from Hurricane Maria and a string of recent strong earthquakes that together caused billions of dollars in losses. Among the business owners affected by the economic crisis and the curfew is Jesús Vázquez, who praised the financial package but said he worries about the fine print and the bureaucracy that might ensue in trying to obtain those benefits.

The 33-year-old laundromat owner confided that he has already skipped loan payments: “I had the audacity to not pay them and keep the cash because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Vázquez was flanked by the chairman and president of a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances that signed off on the measures and freed up money for the emergency. It was a rare appearance following months of conflict between the board and a government that was already balking at austerity moves and staff cuts demanded by the board.

The board recently said it also would file a motion to temporarily suspend a bankruptcy-like process Puerto Rico is facing as it tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load. In addition, the board wrote President Donald Trump last week about plans to transform the island back into the medical manufacturing hub it once was to meet the urgent needs created by the coronavirus pandemic. Board chairman José Carrión noted that 8% of pharmaceutical expenditures by Americans are for products made on the island, where manufacturing represents more than 40% of its total net income.

Puerto Rico as of Monday had 31 confirmed coronavirus cases and reported two deaths, including a U.S. tourist from New York who was vacationing on the island with his wife.

“This situation is really absurd,” said José Abreu, a musician known as Fofé who lost his job at a boutique hotel in San Juan that closed due to the curfew. “We’re here with our mouths wide open over how we’re being hit with one thing after another.”

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