Pandemic Makes Governor of Puerto Rico’s Job more Difficult

Pedro Pierluisi, a GW Law alumnus, talked with the GW Law dean about governing during a global health crisis.

September 22, 2021

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Puerto Rico’s Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Greg Varner

Governing can be tricky, especially during a pandemic, said Puerto Rico’s Governor Pedro Pierluisi, J.D. ‘84, who was elected to his first gubernatorial term in November 2020 and entered office Jan. 2.

“The toughest decisions I’ve had to make as governor relate to this pandemic,” Mr. Pierluisi said Wednesday during a discussion with George Washington University Law School Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew. “I am balancing competing interests,” he added, “and actually that’s the art of governing.”

Mr. Pierluisi said he is proud of his success in meeting the pandemic’s challenges. A majority (70%) of the population of Puerto Rico aged 12 years and up is fully vaccinated, and even more people have had at least one shot. Testing has been readily available since January.

“Fortunately for us [in Puerto Rico], it’s not a political thing,” said the governor, a member of the New Progressive Party. “We approached this as a health issue, not a political issue.”

Nonetheless, he added, different constituencies have varying policy preferences.

Teachers and students in Puerto Rico are vaccinated. In late July, Mr. Pierluisi required all government employees to be vaccinated or to present negative COVID test results once a week. He subsequently expanded his vaccine requirements to encompass other industries working with the public at large. In August, the governor told businesses to require vaccination from their customers or limit their hosting capacities by half.

“This pandemic is unpredictable,” Mr. Pierluisi said. “It humbles everybody, because it’s so hard to predict. You need to listen and then strike a balance that makes sense. … You need to realize that you don’t know it all. You need to surround yourself with people who know more than you.”

At certain moments, when pandemic conditions seemed to be easing, Mr. Pierluisi lifted some of the restrictions that had been imposed earlier, only to have to reverse course.

“We opened a lot of schools in March,” he said. “By April, the Alpha variant hit Puerto Rico. I had to retrench.” In summer, things again seemed to be better, but this too proved temporary, so he imposed further restrictions.

“That was tough,” he said. Given his overall success in managing the pandemic, it’s no surprise that tourism in Puerto Rico is booming. Promoting Puerto Rico, Mr. Pierluisi said, is one of his main duties as governor.

GW President Thomas LeBlanc welcomed the governor back to the university and thanked him for his “dedication to public service and improving the lives of others.”

Then Dr. Matthew led a discussion, later inviting audience members at the Jack Morton Auditorium to ask questions. The event was presented as part of the university’s Latinx Heritage Celebration, timed to coincide with National Hispanic Heritage Month.

“It is not a 30-day celebration,” Dr. Matthew said. “It is a commitment on behalf of this law school and this university” to make American society more just by recognizing and encouraging the countless contributions of its Latinx/o/a and Hispanic communities. “I am proud that we have increased the number of Latinx faculty and staff at the law school,” she added.

Dr. Matthew asked the governor what he, as an alumnus, sees as his alma mater’s role in solving American social problems.

“I love it when I see faculty from this law school writing not only in legal journals, but op-eds, or participating in TV programs,” Mr. Pierluisi said. “Your location is in the middle of the action, so that comes with responsibility. I’m very proud of this law school. It has made a difference in the legal world and in the public policy world.”

Asked about his time attending GW Law, Mr. Pierluisi recalled the diversity of its student body.

“Even then,” he said, “this law school was so progressive. Half of the student body was women. Ever since those days, I learned to work with women on an equal basis.”

Asked by an audience member to share the best advice he has received, and how he applied it during the pandemic, the governor remembered lessons taught by his father, who warned him not to forget that the courtesy and deference shown to him aren’t really personal, but have to do with his office.

“Never allow anybody to leave your office or your presence feeling that you mistreated them,” his father said.

What students learn when studying law, Mr. Pierluisi said, is a way of thinking analogously to solve problems, valuable to graduates whatever their eventual profession.