The inter-agency task force responsible for setting policies on the country’s COVID-19 response could decide by the end of the week on proposals to relax the national mask mandate that Cebu City continued to defy.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, Local Government Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr. stressed the need to weigh things carefully as the country continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Abalos, as head of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), which is discussing proposals to relax the mask mandate outdoors.
He said some members said the Philippines and Myanmar were the only countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to have a mask mandate, while others pointed to the relatively low rate of vaccination and booster uptake.
“So we have to weigh everything,” Abalos said.
He admitted talking again to Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama, who recently defied the national mask mandate by making mask wearing outdoors voluntary.
“I don’t understand his point. I do not want any miscommunication, so it’s better to just move on,” he said in Filipino, days after the Cebu Mayor pushed through with his city’s policy despite pleas from Abalos to wait for the IATF decision.
Last week, Abalos reiterated that the country is still in a state of national health emergency and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has repeatedly called for the public to be vigilant and proactive in following health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
He also emphasized the importance of harmonizing existing laws and policies in cities and municipalities across the country.
Abalos appealed to all local chief executives to put on hold their possible actions on the matter until he brings it over to the IATF, which he asked to convene to discuss the measure.
Earlier, the Department of Health (DOH) said wearing face masks decreases the possibility of infection by 70 percent to 80 percent while reminding Filipinos that decreasing the number of COVID-19 cases does not mean the virus is no longer around.
Meanwhile, Mandaue City said it is no longer interested in relaxing its face mask rule, Mayor Jonas Cortes confirmed, as it drew flak from national officials.
Speaking to reporters, the mayor said they will keep the status quo.
The mayor had earlier issued a statement saying that he was open to follow Cebu City’s move to make the use of face mask non-obligatory. But Cortes on Tuesday said he has changed his mind.
“We cannot afford to gamble or take chances and per our health board, we must be compliant in our ordinance,” Cortes said.
Mandaue City Ordinance No. 15 – 2020 – 1531, states that the non-wearing of face masks including its improper wearing is punishable by a P5,000 penalty.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) and some personnel of the local government unit are still tasked to enforce this ordinance.
Meanwhile, the DOH said COVID-19 infections in Central Visayas have decreased.
From Aug. 28 to Sept, 3, the DOH logged 488 new cases over the region. The average daily rate is now only at 70.
Out of the new cases, only four were critical.
Cebu City’s policy to go it alone in its policy on face masks drew more flak Tuesday.
Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda on Tuesday said that while he respects the decision of Cebu City’s optional use of face mask in open spaces, he said masking is still “a very cheap and non-disruptive way to prevent further infections.”
“Besides, there are indications that it has also prevented non-COVID infections such as common flu. Where doable, masking should remain encouraged,” he said.
Dr. Rontgene Solante, an infectious diseases expert, said it is not yet time to lift the mask mandate due to the continuing COVID-19 transmission and the country’s low booster uptake.
I’m not in favor of making the wearing of masks just optional outdoors,” Solante said during a televised briefing.
Solante described Cebu City’s move as “dangerous,” and noted that mobility restrictions had been lifted and people are allowed to leave their homes.
Solante said relaxing the mask rule might send a message to the public that COVID-19 is no longer a threat and they could disregard health standards. He is also concerned this would affect the country’s efforts in increasing the booster coverage.
Solante urged local government units to coordinate with the DOH and local experts before implementing “drastic” policies on public health.
In a separate development, a Quezon City regional trial court has summoned an ex-broadcast journalist and two other parents to take the witness stand on Sept. 20 in their petition to stop the COVID-19 vaccination on children aged 5-11.
Branch 222 Judge Maria Cherell de Castro-Sansaet subpoenaed Dominic Almelor, a former ABS-CBN reporter, Girlie Samonte of Tondo, Manila and Joel Corpuz of Cainta, Rizal to hear their arguments as to why they wanted to stop the vaccination of children against COVID-19 infection.
Almelor, a father of a 7-year-old boy, and Samonte, a mother of two boys, originally filed a petition for a temporary restraining order and a writ of preliminary injunction, and maintained that the COVID-19 vaccine was just an experimental drug.
The Public Attorney’s Office headed by Persida Rueda-Acosta, an outspoken critic of the government’s vaccination program, is representing all the petitioners.