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Puerto Rico’s struggles with Zika could one day be Florida’s

For a team of athletes preparing to compete in tropical Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, practice on the island of Puerto Rico makes sense.

Add the island’s pool facilities and its proximity to the 2016 Olympic location and the USA Swimming Team was sold, according to the team’s director of PR and communication, Scott Leightman.

Another appeal of Puerto Rico, according to its secretary of Sports and Recreation could be Zika — Puerto Rico has more than 1,1000 confirmed cases of the virus. The Olympic-bound team could practice taking precautions against the virus before it competed in the epicenter of the outbreak, Ramon Orta said.

But Zika was what led the team to cancel those plans, which were announced nearly three years ago, and has led to other high-profile cancellations and a loss in tens of millions dollars for the U.S. territory.

The dual challenge Puerto Rico faces now is on Florida’s horizon: how to combat the spread of Zika and how to manage the public perception and its impact on tourism.

Orta called Zika a “poor excuse” for the swim team’s cancellation. Chairman of the Board of Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association Miguel Vega said such cancellations are unfair to Puerto Rico.

Santos Arroyo, founder and CEO of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for Palm Beach County, called it politics.

“It’s just sickening,” Arroyo said. “It doesn’t make sense at all.”

Many in Puerto Rico, as well as Arroyo, have called the hype around Zika overblown.

But Dr. Nabal Bracero warned that the virus needs to be taken seriously. Zika has been linked with microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with undersized brains and skulls.

“This is probably the most complex health problem that humanity will face in a long time,” Bracero, medical director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility in San Juan, said. It’s even more complex than Ebola. This is HIV level back in the ‘80s.”

Already, reservations for 42,000 nights in Puerto Rican hotels through 2018 have been canceled, equating to $28 million in lost revenue, according to Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company. A busy January, however, has eased the effects of Zika-related cancellations, Rivera said.

The island lost an estimated $4.6 million when Major League Baseball scrapped plans for a Pirates-Marlins series in Puerto Rico this month, Orta said, calling it an incident that left “a scar on (Puerto Rico’s) heart.” That figure doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars Puerto Rico likely would have garnered from spectators, he added.

In a period when the only consistently growing industry in Puerto Rico has been tourism — it makes up 7 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP, according to the island’s planning board — Puerto Rican officials are trying to ease fears about the virus through education.

“Being a tropical island, we have dealt with mosquitos forever,” Clarisa Jimenez, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, said. “Puerto Rico is prepared to handle this situation.”

To prove it, Puerto Rico has been engaged in “a very focused public relations effort,” Rivera said.

Promotions for guests, toolkits for hotels and an abundance of bug repellant all have gone toward that effort. There’s even a website dedicated to “setting the record straight on Zika in Puerto Rico.”

“People are still doing business here,” Vega said. “We are living a normal time out here.”

This month the island hosted a women’s volleyball tournament for Olympic qualification and a match between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Soccer team.

The U.S. Soccer team’s doctor gave a presentation to players before going to the island about how to protect themselves from Zika, Logan Buckley, digital content coordinator for the team, said. In short: Use bug spray and cover up.

“I think there’s no difference of being in Florida or being in Puerto Rico right now because you need to take the same precautions,” Vega said.

All reported cases of Zika in the states have been travel-related, meaning none has come from being bitten by mosquitos here. Most of Puerto Rico’s more than 1,100 cases have come from mosquitos carrying the virus on the island.

However, many in Puerto Rico are quick to say they do not know anyone who has the virus.

“It’s gonna be a weird situation if we don’t have that many cases,” Bracero said. “We are gonna look like perhaps we were doing an overblowing of the situation, but I prefer that to … having that many cases that we don’t know what to do with the babies.”

Olivia Hitchcock is reporting from Puerto Rico as part of a John R. Wilhelm Foreign Correspondence Fellowship.

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