IATF for optional use of masks outdoors, pilot test indoors

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has recommended the voluntary use of face masks outdoors, the Department of Health (DOH) said Wednesday.

In a Palace media briefing, DOH officer-in-charge Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the optional wearing of a face mask is only for low-risk individuals and in low-risk settings.

“We liberalized the use of masks outdoors but for low-risk individuals and in low-risk settings meaning they are not elderly. And low risk setting, meaning in uncrowded areas and with proper air ventilation,” she said.

The recommendation also includes a pilot study on the wearing of masks indoors in selected areas.

IATF noted that its implementation must be done in phases to ensure the population’s protection against the coronavirus.

“We are now gathering pieces of evidence; we’re also creating a concept paper where and how the pilot study will be implemented” Vergeire said.

She said the optional wearing of face masks outdoors is not yet a policy as the President has yet to issue an executive order accepting the IATF recommendation.

A pilot test of the proposal, if approved by the President, will happen “toward the last quarter of 2022,” she said.

The IATF recommendation comes as Cebu City defied a national mask mandate and made the wearing of masks optional outdoors.

Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles, meanwhile, said the Palace is studying the IATF recommendation, and that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was optimistic about its effect.

Citing the Department of Tourism (DOT), she said studies are showing a direct correlation between the lifting of the face mask policy to an increase in tourism numbers.

However, she said local authorities also need to do their part in raising vaccination and booster rates.

“There are studies that show direct correlation between the removal of mandatory mask mandate and an increase in tourism numbers. On the other hand, we cannot just change health protocols without a backup plan and the backup plan really here is to make sure that people are boostered,” she said.

Cruz-Angeles also reminded the public of the need to maintain a balance between the people’s health and the economy.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government warned that local government units not following the national government’s policy on the use of face masks indoors will be “disciplined.”

He did not specify, however, if Cebu City, which has defied the national mask mandate, would be disciplined.

Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama said he will continue implementing his executive order on the voluntary use of face masks outdoors, citing the local autonomy of the city government.

The DOH, meanwhile, said President Marcos is likely to extend the state of calamity due to COVID-19 until the end of the year.

The state of calamity, set to lapse on Sept. 12, allows local governments to implement the coronavirus vaccination program, tap quick response funds to contain COVID-19, and control the prices of basic necessities.

The DOH has said the government’s emergency procurement, tax exemptions for donors, price controls for COVID-19 drugs and testing kits, and health workers’ benefits will also cease once the state of calamity ends.

The President is considering amendments to the COVID-19 Vaccination Act of 2021 as a “cover” when the state of calamity ends, though these might not be feasible given the time frame, Vergeire said.

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