Amid her continued defiance of the national government-set mask mandate, the Department of the Interior and Local Government said it is looking to take legal action against Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia.
“That’s what we will do,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in a radio interview on Wednesday.
“If they continue to do it and it causes injury, damage, and confusion, the national government cannot just allow that to happen,” Año added.
Garcia, however, insisted she has a responsibility to her constituents and “not to outgoing and unelected officials,” and stood pat on her executive order to make the use of face masks against COVID-19 optional in well-ventilated and open spaces in her province.
And with the Cebu provincial board also passing an ordinance legalizing her Executive Order 16 on Tuesday, Garcia on Wednesday defended the provincial police chief who said her order “remains the law” in the province — but was later sacked by national authorities.
In a press conference, she called out acting Philippine National Police Chief Lt. Gen. Vicente Danao for the “public shaming” of Police Col. Engelbert Soriano.
Soriano was relieved by the PNP for defying the orders of both the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which supervises the national police, and later President Rodrigo Duterte, who said his directive on face masks was “clear” and should be continued.
“If you publicly shame a fellow officer, that does not speak well of your character,” Garcia said in a press conference, addressing Danao directly.
“And above all, I think all officers, all uniformed personnel in thePNP for as long as they have acted within the bounds of law, deserve all due respect, even from an OIC PNP chief like Lt. General Vicente Danao,” she said.
But what Garcia should have done instead of defying President Duterte’s orders was to confer with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and request for a change of policy, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Wednesday.
During the Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual forum, Guevarra stressed the IATF may consider pilot testing the optional wearing of face masks in Cebu during the group’s next meeting.
“So, the IATF, in its next meeting, may probably consider that suggestion. We could test it in Cebu and if there is no upsurge in (COVID-19) cases if the wearing of face masks would only become optional, maybe it is a good time for us to change the rules on the mandatory wearing of face masks,” he said.
The Palace cited the legal opinion of the Justice chief that the IATF resolution on the mandatory wearing of face masks “shall prevail over the executive orders by local government units, including the one issued by the provincial government of Cebu.”
“In my experience, the IATF is very reasonable to talk to about such issues. It would be easy for the IATF to make the adjustments if they could show proof of scientific basis to take such particular action,” the DOJ secretary said.
But in discrediting Guevarra’s opinion, Garcia noted that a provision in the Local Government Code grants local governments autonomy in issuing policy and that the resolutions issued by IATF are merely recommendatory.
Garcia added that even the IATF recognizes that its resolutions are neither equivalent to laws created and passed by Congress nor any executive order.
However, the task force is composed of Cabinet secretaries who are alter egos of the President, Guevarra said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DOH) warned Wednesday it is risky for local governments to lift face mask mandates as COVID-19 cases increase, more transmissible subvariants enter the country, and immunity from vaccines wanes.
Health Undersecretary and spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire made the remark with Garcia’s local EO in mind, saying under the current rules of the IATF, removing face masks outdoors is allowed for al fresco dining and exercise in open spaces.
“If you go to the mountain and you do not remove your mask, that’s up to you, you’re all alone there. You can always do that and no one’s going to apprehend you,” Vergeire told ANC’s Headstart.
“If you as a local government announce to the public, that might be risky, especially now that cases have increased, especially now that subvariants have entered the country, and the country has waning immunity,” she said. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
The average daily new COVID-19 cases nationwide has increased 48 percent to 270 from 182 cases last week, the spokesperson said. This is not yet alarming as there is no rise in severe and critical cases, Vergeire said.
But the coronavirus “crosses borders,” Vergeire told local officials. “Transmission will not really stop if we’re going to implement this (mask mandate easing).”
“We cannot be complacent at this point, we can still see this virus can still cause a rise in cases,” she said.
Giving the general population a second booster shot is not the answer to waning immunity, Vergeire said, as it is currently limited to health workers, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
“The waning immunity stems from the fact that all of our primary series vaccines had been affected by the omicron variant. Therefore,
all of us who recovered the primary series should receive the (first) booster shot,” she said.
In Metro Manila, National Capital Region Police Office chief Maj. Gen. Felipe Natividad ordered his men to continue to confront and arrest, if necessary, those not following health protocols.
“The NCRPO reiterates the standing order to all commanders on the ground to strictly tighten the implementation of minimum health standard protocols, especially the mandatory wearing of face masks and social distancing in the National Capital Region following the uptick of COVID-19 cases to 30% from June 6-12, 2022, last week,” said Natividad in a statement.
“This is to avoid further lumping the statistics of positive cases due to reluctance of some people on the observance of these health protocols,” he added.
Natividad came up with the directive following reports the national government is considering adding more restrictions in Metro Manila.
“Team NCRPO fully supports and respects the rules set by the IATF and is always on guard and susceptible to any changes in the alert level to be made by higher authorities particularly in a possibility of alert level 2 in NCR especially when it concerns the welfare of the general public and its personnel,” he said.
Natividad said the police force is mandated and obliged to enforce the laws and regulations of the duly constituted authorities accordingly.
“Thus, we solicit the cooperation of the public to be mindful and observe minimum health standard protocols especially when in crowded places. Implement self-imposed discipline like wearing a face mask and observance of social distancing at all times,” he said.
But in Cebu, Garcia on Tuesday also warned law enforcers they will be charged with illegal arrest if they insist on arresting individuals not wearing face masks in open spaces in Cebu.
“If they make arrests, they can be charged with illegal arrest,” she said.
The governor said she would have kept quiet on Soriano’s dismissal as she understood the processes of the PNP, but what caught her ire was the “public shaming and unceremonious removal” of the Cebu police chief from his post on June 12 for what the PNP termed “career advancement.”
The PNP also said Soriano had overstayed his position for over a year, and appointed Police Col. Elmer Lim was designated as officer-in-charge.