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Puerto Rico Freezes Condom Prices To Prevent Zika Profiteering

"Just because Zika is here, doesn't mean we're going to raise the price" for condoms, says sales clerk Coralis Ferrer-Marrero.

To help prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, government officials on the island have declared condom price-gouging illegal.

In early February, during a media briefing at the Governor's mansion, Puerto Rico's Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Nery Adames Soto, announced his agency has added prophylactics to the price-freeze list. Stores on the island also aren't allowed by DACO to raise the price on mosquito repellent, window screens, larvicides and other mosquito-killing products.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that as of Feb. 19 there were nine cases of Zika reported on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Eight of them were locally acquired and one was associated with travel. Public health officials have reported more than 60 Zika cases in Puerto Rico, including three pregnant women.

DACO's Adames ordered the price freeze on condoms because of growing concerns that someone can pass the Zika virus to another person through sexual contact. He's worried the virus can quickly spread to other municipalities.

He added, people should visit the DACO website or Facebook page and file a report if they come across a business that has violated his executive order.

"Every local store, gas station or business that sells these items must know that DACO will be knocking on your doors and closely monitoring this, allowing the citizens to protect themselves adequately because now is not the time to raise prices."

Store owners may be fined up to $10,000 for each price-gouging violation.

To get a better sense of what the condom price freeze meant to the locals, NPR's Greg Allen and I went to Condom World, a popular adult retail chain in Puerto Rico.

The branch we visited is in the heart of Carolina, a beach town east of San Juan. On a typical Friday evening a flock of tourist stroll up and down the sidewalk bustling with restaurants, pubs and other novelty shops. The curious tend to wander in to browse the provocative merchandise at Condom World.

Sales clerk Coralis Ferrer-Marrero says she had heard about the government declaring the condom price freeze.

"It's stupid," she says. "Just because Zika is here, doesn't mean we're going to raise the price. That's something we just don't do no matter what."

A box of three condoms ranges in price from $3.99 to $5.99

Ferrer-Marrero agrees with price freezing in general, but doesn't think the government needs to draw much attention to condom sales as a potential threat to the spread of Zika. There are more pressing concerns like putting screens on windows and eliminating stagnant water sources.

Condom World customer, Beatrice Garza, said a condom price freeze should definitely be in order and hopes retailers don't take advantage of the situation.

"The mosquitos started this. It didn't come from sex. It came from the mosquito." Garza says.

Meanwhile the archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Nieves Gonzales, came out with his take on the condom rhetoric. Soon after the government's decree on the condom price freeze, Monsignor Gonzales recommended a lifestyle "of chastity and abstinence" instead of using a condom to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

The first reported cases of infection were centered on the northeastern part of the island and near San Juan. But there are now confirmed cases appearing in the southern coast and parts of the interior, a sign the virus may continue to spread to other regions the upcoming months.

In early February, Puerto Rico's Governor declared a public health emergency on the island.

The rapid spread of Zika coupled with public health messages about sexual transmission may have an economic impact on specialty stores like Condom World – despite a condom price freeze. The island is already starting to see a decline in sales and tourism in other areas of the commonwealth.

Miguel Vega is the chairman of the island's tourism association. He says these new government impositions and mandates will affect travel to the island and its hotel industry. And he's not happy about it.

"Sometimes they take these things out of proportion," he says, "and it creates collective hysteria where there is not any necessity."

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