Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico
A brief downpour was the only time people retreated indoors at La Concha in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when I vacationed there earlier this month. The rain didn't last long, and within minutes it was difficult to find a vacant lounge chair on the pool deck.
Incentive winners from a medical supply company, an insurance company, and Goya Foods were among the groups staying at the hotel, which was close to filled to capacity.
Casa Bacardi, the famed rum distillery, was bustling as rum tasting, mixology, and historical tours were in progress. On another part of the island, groups of tourists swarmed under the La Mina waterfall in El Yunque National Forest, letting out shrieks as the cascading water spilled on top of them.
Everywhere I visited it was business as usual. No one seemed concerned about the Zika virus, a disease that is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito. There are 249 confirmed cases -- 24 of them in pregnant women -- in Puerto Rico.
Groups Still Meeting in Puerto Rico
The Puerto Rico Convention Center was full of activity as the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP) hosted a convention that attracted more than 2,500 physicians from the United States mainland. Dr. Larry W. Anderson, president of ACOFP, weighed in on Zika.
"The health of our members when we travel is always paramount to us and we found this was really no different then us going to Key West or Ft. Lauderdale, anywhere on the coast. The precautions we took were what we normally do when we go to these locations. Get out the DEET, the insect spray," said Anderson. "We're still looking for the first mosquito. We have not found it and could not find anyone who had a mosquito bite."
This can be attributed to an intensive effort underway to help stop the spread of the virus. "The city of San Juan and the hotels and restaurants have been very, very intentional of making sure there is no place for mosquitoes to hatch, to lay eggs, to breed, and we have found it very pleasant," adds Anderson. "The overwhelming response from our members is they want to come back," adds Anderson. (ACOFP is in talks with Meet Puerto Rico to bring either its 2020 or 2021 convention back to the island.)
The CEO Summit, Destination Marketing Association International's (DMAI) most prestigious gathering for destination CEOs, presidents, and executive directors, also went off without a hitch from April 11-13 in San Juan. Todd Garofano, president of New York's Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau, attended the Summit. When asked whether there was thought about canceling his trip because of Zika, he replied no. "DMAI had a link on the registration page for the CEO Forum that addressed the Zika issue and what steps Puerto Rico had taken to ensure visitor safety. That was good enough for me."
Meeting professionals all agree it is important to be practical, not fearful, when dealing with Zika. For instance, take the American Lighting Association (ALA), which is bringing its annual conference to the El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico in September. On the website about the conference is a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its report on Zika. The following statement regarding Zika was posted on the CEO Summit website:
"Eric Jacobson, CAE, ALA's president/CEO, the chairman of the conference, as well as the executive committee of the board of governors and executive staff all feel confident in the conference continuing as planned. In any communication with our membership, we publish, 'For Zika virus or travel related questions, ALA is continuing to monitor and consult with our hotel partner, the El Conquistador, the CDC, and Meet Puerto Rico.'"
Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, echoes that Puerto Rico is very much open for business.
"As one would expect we have been following the Zika virus situation very closely since the first case was reported in Puerto Rico and I can confidently say that we are ahead of destinations who, according to news reports, will most likely get it this summer. Puerto Rico has been very proactive in in preventing the spread of the Zika virus as well as educating our citizens and visitors," notes Segarra. "Because of the success we have had fighting the Zika virus and the successful groups we have hosted recently, Meet Puerto Rico would be happy to offer our help in the future to any destination on the mainland who may need our advice on how to work with meeting planners, hotels, tourism industry and government officials towards providing a safe destination for all travelers."
President Barack Obama and his administration are monitoring the situation, with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell heading to Puerto Rico on a Zika-related trip. This comes as the Obama administration battles with the GOP-led Congress over $2 billion in emergency response funding, $250 million of which is allocated to Puerto Rico.
Some of the measures being taken in Puerto Rico to help stop the spread of the Zika virus include spraying public areas with mosquito repellant, eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, and establishing a 3-1-1 telephone hotline and Twitter account to enable reporting of high risk areas. Local medical personnel have been educated on identifying and caring for patients with Zika.
Approximately 100 members of the CDC are working in Puerto Rico providing education and assisting the Health Department of Puerto Rico in the monitoring of cases and communications to the public.
There is no vaccine to prevent Zika, and once infected there is no medicine to treat the virus. Symptoms typically include fever, rash, joint pain, and the red eyes of conjunctivitis. Zika may also be linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis for a few weeks to several months. The most alarming Zika-related effect is microcephaly, a neurological disorder where babies are born with shrunken heads and incomplete brain development.
The CDC recommends that travelers to Puerto Rico protect themselves with insect repellant containing DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535. Many planners are placing insect repellent in attendees' guest rooms and in pre-departure packages. Mosquito repellent wipes are also good to have at all meetings and events. The Aedes mosquito, which carries Zika, is an aggressive biter, especially during the day.