Cebu’s order on face masks should prompt IATF review

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn 'Gwyn' Garcia. TMT FILE PHOTO

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn ‘Gwyn’ Garcia. TMT FILE PHOTO

WHEN Cebu province issued an executive order relaxing rules on the wearing of face masks, local and national authorities reacted quickly to oppose it. But while flawed, the order should prompt a national review of the health protocols on Covid-19. Perhaps, there ought to be discussion about whether the body that is responsible for crafting those measures, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases or IATF-EID is responsive enough.

In a press conference, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia clarified that she did not scuttle the requirement to wear face masks when she issued Executive Order 16 on June 8, 2022. It merely made the wearing of face masks optional in well-ventilated areas and open spaces. It was an apparent attempt to boost tourism, a vital economic sector for the province.

“We are not saying, do not use face masks. It's your choice. Those that would wish to breathe in pure oxygen, the more beneficial sea air, then please, let's not bring the wearing of face masks to ridiculous levels,” Garcia said.

The mayor of Cebu City, however, announced that he would defy the governor's executive order. And Secretary Eduardo Año of the Department of the Interior and Local Government said that the provincial order was void, and that the IATF-EID was the only body authorized to set health guidelines regarding the pandemic. As expected, some people are confused about which order to follow.

Año stressed that people, especially the old and those with comorbidities, are susceptible to Covid-19. “Our adherence to minimum public health standards (MPHS) is the key to defeating this pandemic. The wearing of face masks, together with vaccination and boosters have helped keep our Covid-19 case counts low despite the detection of new sub-variants. Scientific evidence worldwide proves that the use of face masks reduces the transmission not only of Covid-19 but also of other infectious and respiratory diseases including monkeypox, should it reach our country.”

The secretary makes a good argument, especially in saying policies should follow science. But the Cebu governor also has a point, that policies need to be practical and conducive to economic well-being. Instead of dismissing her order outright, the national government should reflect on whether the task force can adjust rapidly to changing situations. Apparently for Cebu, that task force is too slow in helping revive a key industry.

Differing situations

Obviously, the health situation is not the same across the Philippines. Wearing a face mask at the beach or while hiking on a mountain trail does seem silly, particularly when few other people are around. It may be better for the IATF-EID to allow local governments and city health officials to set the appropriate health policies for their respective areas.

To be clear, we believe that wearing a face mask helps fend off Covid-19. But there are valid reasons for supporting a further easing of some health measures. For instance, no notable spike in Covid-19 cases was seen after the recent campaign and Election Day. That was more than a month ago.

Also, restaurants have been operating at full capacity, and naturally, patrons take off their masks to eat. This also happens at in-person events in hotels and other similar venues where food is served. And based on observation, few of those establishments seem concerned about maintaining a healthy distance among those in attendance.

In other countries, governments have adapted mask policies similar to what Garcia had ordered. In some European countries, for instance, face masks are required while indoors and optional when outside.

Of course, the Philippines should not merely mimic what other countries are doing. Wearing face masks should still be required while on public transportation and in public areas where physical distancing is not possible or practical. Additionally, employers should be more lenient about allowing their employees to work from home, particularly in situations where that arrangement can produce the results needed.

After two years of the pandemic, the authorities should know better how to balance health measures and policies needed for economic recovery. And as said before in this space, people should learn how to live with Covid-19.

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