The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) on Tuesday directed police and local officials to enforce the wearing of face masks inside commercial establishments and other crowded areas.
“Local government units and the PNP (Philippine National Police) should coordinate closely in ensuring that the public continues to wear face masks indoors and in public transportation,” said DILG Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr. “We are still in the middle of the pandemic, and we cannot let our guard down.”
Despite an executive order making the wearing of face masks voluntary outdoors, Abalos reminded senior citizens, immunocompromised people, and those who are not fully vaccinated to continue masking up.
“For your own safety and health, please wear your face masks at all times. The threat of COVID-19 cannot be discounted by anyone, more so, our vulnerable population,” he said.
Abalos said local government units (LGUs) should take the lead in ensuring compliance with the indoor mask mandate.
EO No. 3 issued by the Office of the President on Sept. 12, 2022, allows the voluntary wearing of face masks in open spaces and uncrowded outdoor areas with good ventilation.
The same EO states that face masks are still mandatory in indoor settings, public transportation by air, land, and sea; and in outdoor settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Abalos said that the signing of the EO is a clear signal to all LGUs to move in one accord in implementing the face mask mandate in their localities. He said the focus of LGUs now should be “ensuring that the policy will not be abused, and that people are still protected from the virus.”
The decision to ease face mask rules came after Cebu City unilaterally declared them optional in outdoor settings, defying a national mask mandate.
The DILG did not sanction Cebu City, however, for violating what at the time was the policy set down by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
Instead, Abalos urged the IATF to review its mask mandate and consider making face masks optional in outdoor areas, as Cebu City did.
While the Department of Tourism (DOT) welcomed the move to relax face mask rules, a string of medical experts said it was not the right time to do so.
The head of the country’s vaccine expert panel, Dr. Nina Gloriani, said the Philippines has not yet seen stability in the number of COVID-19 cases.
“I have been saying this all along. For as long as we have people going out, transmitting the infection, the mutation of this virus continues, and we expect the emergence of variants. So, we are not off the hook yet,” Gloriani said in an interview with ANC’s “Headstart.”
Following the relaxed mask rule, Gloriani urged Filipinos to assess their risk against COVID-19.
She said she hoped that their risk assessment would lead them to continue wearing masks.
Dr. Jose Rene de Grano, president of the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, Inc, said COVID-19 remains a threat with 2,000 to3,000 infections being recorded per day. The number does not include people who might be infected but do not take antigen or RT-PCR tests despite COVID symptoms, he added.
“It’s much too early to lift the mask mandate because we still have alot of infections,” he said in Filipino in a TeleRadyo interview.
“Wear masks. This is more important, better protection against not only COVID but other respiratory diseases,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
De Grano denied that the Philippines has almost attained a so-called “wall of immunity” against the virus after more than 72 million Filipinos received a second completed dose of the vaccine.
“We can’t say that there is a wall of immunity because it is likely that our first vaccine that was given has almost no effect,” he said, adding that many Filipinos have yet to receive booster doses.
Data from the Department of Health (DOH) showed that as of Sept. 11, only 18.5 million COVID-19 booster doses have been administered.
De Grano said the effect of the lifting of the mask mandate would be known in two to three weeks.
During the past week, the Philippines logged 15,379 new COVID-19 cases, DOH data showed.
From Sept. 5 to 11, the country recorded an average of 2,197 daily infections, which is 10 percent lower compared to the previous week.
The DOH also verified 300 more COVID-related fatalities.
Those in favor of easing the mask mandate cited the economic benefits.
Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte of Camarines Sur said “the President’s decision would further hasten the country’s recovery from COVID-19, with the once booming tourism industry likely to be one of the drivers of an economic rebound with the projected influx of foreign visitors resulting from this relaxed health protocol.”
Villafuerte, a former three-term governor, appealed to local government executives to “step up to the plate” and render full assistance to and cooperation with the IATF in carrying out the President’s executive order.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) on Tuesday welcomed the relaxed face mask rule, saying this development would allow the country’s tourism to catch up in the race to recover from the pandemic.
Citing empirical data, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco said in other economies in Asia, Europe, and North America where stringent health protocols were lifted, this resulted in more favorable economic conditions, an increase in tourist arrivals, and a faster recovery of their respective tourism portfolios.
“The DOT is optimistic that the lifting of the mask mandate will allow the Philippines to gradually catch up in the race to recovery of tourism in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region as this is seen to build more confidence in travel, spur economic activity, and enhance people-to-people connectivity into and around the country,” she said in a statement.
AirAsia Philippines on Tuesday described the issuance of Executive Order No. 3 or the optional wearing of face masks outdoors as a welcome development that will attract more leisure travelers in a bid to stir economic activity.
“However, the world’s best low-cost airline reminds its guests that wearing of face masks is still required in all public transportation, especially in enclosed spaces such as airports and airplanes,” AirAsia said.
Despite the new executive order, many Filipinos will continue to wear face masks even after COVID-19 is under control, a survey by the independent OCTA Research Group said.
OCTA Research fellow Ranjit Rye presented the recent survey of the group after the President made the wearing of face masks voluntary in outdoor settings.
Rye said 30 percent of the adult population said they would continue to wear masks six months after COVID-19 is declared controlled.
Twenty-eight percent of the respondents said they will continue wearing face masks a year after COVID-19 is declared controlled, 16 percent said they will continue it even after two years, and 18
percent said they will continue wearing face masks five years after the coronavirus is deemed controlled.
“These are huge numbers. There seems to be a consensus among adult Filipinos that masks are important, and we don’t need to encourage them. They will wear masks because of their belief that it is for their own safety,” Rye added.