Find the latest episode of "The Uncertain Hour" here. Listen

Puerto Rican businesses hang on in an economy shaped by disaster

Kristin Schwab Feb 3, 2021
Heard on:
A medical worker stands at the entrance of a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

Puerto Rican businesses hang on in an economy shaped by disaster

Kristin Schwab Feb 3, 2021
Heard on:
A medical worker stands at the entrance of a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

It’s winter in Puerto Rico — warm and sunny. And here on the west coast in Isabela, just a couple hours from San Juan, the capital, winter is surfing season. Instructor Joel Torres is going over the basics with three beginners on the sand of Jobos Beach.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle. Hard, hard, hard! Gotta paddle hard!,” he shouts. “All right. Chicken wing, arch, up!”

Everyone pops up to their feet, a little wobbly on the first try. They practice that move over and over until the only thing left is to do it for real. So they wax their boards, put on their leg straps and head across the sand into the crystal blue waves.

Juan Ashton owns the surf school with his wife, Hannah Griek. He’s a former professional surfer and a representative for Volcom, which makes clothing for board sports. He convinced the brand to let him use its name for the business. Volcom Presents Tropical Premium Surf School opened in August 2017 — right in time for Hurricane Maria to rip Jobos Beach apart.

“Oh, my God, it was totally torn up. There was hardly any sand. It was, like, really rocky,” Ashton said. Most businesses on the beach were destroyed.

Juan Ashton and Hannah Griek have seen a boom in their surfing business during the pandemic. (Kristin Schwab/Marketplace)

Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing billions of dollars in property damage. It flattened neighborhoods, crippled the power grid and created a major humanitarian crisis, the effects of which are still visible in some places.

The surf school’s only infrastructure was a tent, so no big loss there. And the hurricane meant Ashton got a late start building his business, but he knows it could have been a lot worse. The same is true with the pandemic; in fact, business is booming.

“The parents were like goin’ crazy because they’re like, ‘Juan and Hannah, I got this kid seven days a week in the house. Help me,'” he said. Ashton’s biggest headache now is getting his surfing instructors to pick up extra hours because they like to surf, too.

Tourism makes up about 10% of the island’s gross domestic product, but it’s one of Isabela’s main industries, and that’s not just because of its beaches. It also has mountains, caves and forests.

Tropical Trail Rides has been taking horseback riders through that terrain for 26 years. And as business owners, Craig and Michelle Barker have been through a lot.

“So much politically, economically,” said Craig Barker. “Obviously, Maria was the most impactful thing of my life. Ever. That was the hardest, hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, by far.”

Tropical Trail Rides has been operating in Isabela for 26 years, through hurricanes, earthquakes and now COVID-19. (Kristin Schwab/Marketplace)

Everyone here has a Maria story. Barker’s includes 50 horses, no water for two months and no electricity for six. He said hurricanes, earthquakes and the weak infrastructure are all part of doing business in an economy shaped by disaster — and now COVID-19.

“All of this stuff has been tough. It’ll tear you apart if you can’t endure it. You have to be super, super tough,” he said.

Barker got a small Paycheck Protection Program loan, and his business is outdoors, so his numbers are down only a little. Almost everything happens outdoors in Puerto Rico, really. But that’s not enough to save every business.

Javier Rodriguez Malpica owns a bar called Tu Mojito. His speciality, of course, is mojitos in flavors like passion fruit, dragonberry and sesame. The typical mojito is 32 ounces, the same size as a Big Gulp, for $8.

“I’m a bartender. I ask everybody to taste it. Check it out if you want more alcohol. You get drunk, I’m happy,” he laughs.

Bacardi rum is distilled in Puerto Rico, and Rodriguez Malpica said he’s the 16th biggest buyer on the island, including hotels and Costco. When he lost power during Hurricane Maria, Bacardi sent him a generator so he could make ice. People from across the island came to his bar for a break.

“I think that was the boom of [Tu] Mojito,” he said.

Now, the bar has 20,000 followers on Facebook; the population of Isabela is about 40,000. But popularity can’t help him this time. The government has shut down bars during the pandemic. He’s still running a small restaurant because they can stay open. But “the money that I make today, I pay something. But none in the bank. And that’s something I’m scared of right now. Lose everything,” he said.

He drained his savings to convert his bar into a second restaurant, but he’s been waiting months for an inspection. He thinks he won’t make it past summer.

“Damn, COVID,” he sighs. “I told my wife this is my all in. This is my last chance. I put everything.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

Read More


Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.