Palace: Face masks a must

Still, Cebu prov’l board legalizes Garcia’s order to make them optional

“The Chief Executive’s directive is clear: Continue wearing face masks.”

MASK UP. Members of the Manila Police District patrol along Ylaya Street in Divisoria, Manila on Tuesday to remind people to comply with the minimum public health standards, including the wearing of face masks and observing physical distancing. Norman Cruz

This was President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to the public on Tuesday despite Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia’s insistence on making the use of anti-COVID-19 masks optional in well-ventilated and open spaces in her province.

Acting presidential spokesman Martin Andanar issued the statement to assert the President’s order, which is based on the government’s pandemic task force.

He said the Palace supports the legal opinion of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that the Inter-Agency Task Force (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.”

Guevarra on Monday said the IATF resolution is “incorporated in and/or enabled by executive orders” issued by the President, who has supervision over local governments.

Still, the Cebu provincial board on Tuesday approved unanimously on its third and final reading an ordinance easing the use of face masks in the province.

Authored by Board Member John Ismael Borgonia, the ordinance was decided in a special session requested by Garcia.

Ordinance No. 2022-03 legalizes Garcia’s Executive Order 16, making use of face masks optional in outdoors and well-ventilated spaces. However, face masks are still required in indoor and air-conditioned areas. They are also needed for those with symptoms of COVID-19.

The new ordinance also authorizes the governor to come up with rules and regulations on the issue.

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.

The governor stood pat on her decision, saying she has a responsibility to her constituents and not to outgoing and unelected officials.

“If they make arrests, they can be charged with illegal arrest,” said Garcia, in reaction to statements made by national government officials that locals can face arrest if they defy a presidential order to wear face masks in public to protect against COVID-19.

The governor also discredited the statement of Guevarra on IATF resolutions prevailing over executive orders issued by local government units.

She said 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 IATF is composed of Cabinet secretaries who are alter egos of the President, Guevarra noted.

Andanar said the Department of the Interior and Local Government has instructed the Philippine National Police “to implement the existing IATF resolution on wearing of face masks accordingly.”

Cebu Provincial Director Police Col. Engelbert Soriano – who released a statement two days earlier on the CPPO’s Facebook page saying that Garcia’s Executive Order No. 16 “remains the law” —has been relieved from duty effective June 12, the PNP Public Information Office said on Tuesday.

The PNP statement said Soriano was relieved after having served for more than a year, to give way “for career advancement and to give greater opportunity to other qualified Third Level PCOs (Police Commissioned Officers).”

“His relief is pursuant to the provisions of PNP Memorandum Circular 2022-002, which states that Provincial Director, City Director or COP of NCRPO shall be held by a PCOL for a continuous period of one year,” the statement read.

Police Col. Elmer Lim was designated as officer-in-charge of the provincial office following Soriano’s relief.

The Interior department earlier refused to recognize Cebu’s face mask policy and warned that those who violate health protocols could be apprehended.

The DILG reminded Garcia that the country is still under a Public Health Emergency, where local policies must align with local policies to control and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has also urged the public and local officials to continue following minimum public health standards (MPHS) as key to defeating the pandemic.

“The President has directed that we will continue to wear face masks except under circumstances defined by IATF.

Current IATF protocols allow only for specific instances when masks can be taken off, such as when eating or duringcertain well-ventilated sports and activities,” he said.

Año on Friday said he has spoken with the PNP chief and regional and provincial police directors to implement the mandate on wearing masks.

“If the provincial (police) director won’t uphold the law, he will be relieved of his position, and we will place somebody there who will implement the law,” Año said in an interview with Teleradyo.

However, his superior, Police Regional Office-7 chief Brig. Gen. Roque Eduardo Vega sided with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ rule on the mandatory wearing of face masks.

On Monday, PNP officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Vicente Danao Jr. ordered all police officers to follow the national government’s rule enforcing mask mandates across the country. He also advised police officers who refuse to follow the national government’s directive to just resign from their posts.

Taking a cue from Cebu, the League of Provinces of the Philippines said they would discuss whether to make it optional to wear a face mask against COVID-19 when outdoors.

“We have not yet discussed it. But I look forward to this Friday because we will have a term-end meeting and hopefully, I plan to talk and ask my colleagues regarding their views on the issue,” said LPP National Chairman and Quirino Governor Dakila Cua at the Laging Handa briefing.

“We see that some LGUs are saying that it should at least be studied, discussed, and the data looked at,” he added.

Cua said the provincial government of Quirino had started discussing whether they would follow Cebu’s example.

“We see that perhaps there should be dimension or depth to this policy at least in the outdoors. Because time will come, and we shall see, that the pandemic will subside and will become only a local matter,” he said.

“But if it will be dangerous for our province-mates, we will not implement such a policy,” Cua clarified.

Local authorities “understand” the risk that comes with the slight uptick in COVID-19 cases in Metro Manila, the governor said, adding that any policy shift on masks would “depend on our experts.”

Quirino has no active COVID-19 case as of Tuesday, Cua said. The province is currently under Alert Level 1, the loosest of the country’s 5-tier COVID-19 alert system.

The Department of Health, meanwhile, appealed to local governments to follow “only one protocol.”

Cebu lawmaker Borgonia said some countries in Southeast Asia are also removing the mandatory use of face masks and cited the low number of new COVID-18 cases in the province.

The measure also invoked local autonomy and was seconded by Board Member Andrei Duterte. It will be effective 15 days after the ordinance is posted to the public.

Senator-elect JV Ejercito said the DOH is mandated to recommend what would be best suited for any health crisis situation.

“They are the health experts. They have to be transparent and explain well to our people why there is, if ever, a need to raise the alert level,” he said.

He said businesses would continue “if our people feel safe to continue with their work and life amidst Alert Level 2.”

If there is uncertainty, he noted that everything “will be put to a halt, our economy included. The government needs to make its people feel safe.”

Ejercito’s half-brother, returning Senator Jinggoy Estrada, said they understand the concerns of the business community “but we should comply with the recommendations of our health experts especially now that more people are going out and more businesses are operating in full capacity.”

“We should be more careful. It is imperative to observe the minimum health protocols and ensure that we are fully vaccinated with the needed booster shot,” he said. “We cannot afford another COVID-19 surge right now. “

Guevara also has no choice but to implement the law and policy, said Sen. Sonny Angara, but he questioned why the IATF still requires masks outdoors.

Angara noted that all over the world, masks are no longer required outdoors.

“Why do we still have such a policy to begin with? Doesn’t science already support the proposition that there is much less risk of catching the virus in an outdoor setting?” he asked, saying he believes the wearing of face masks should be optional.

“Outdoors yes; in crowded spaces, OK to still require masks,” the senator said, noting that in Europe and the United States, wearing of face masks outdoors is no longer mandatory.

Sen. Win Gatchalian said learning from his visit to Singapore, they no longer require masks when outdoors, and its convention centers and restaurants are at full capacity. The effect, he said, is a resurgence of their tourism industry to shore up government revenues.

He noted that the vaccines are effective as evidenced by the very low hospital occupancy rates.

“We just have to live with this virus already and continue to promote booster shots to the entire population,” Gatchalian said.

Sen. Imee Marcos believes living with COVID will include wearing a face mask in crowded enclosed spaces, as many countries learned during the SARS and other contagion outbreaks.

“Really, it’s a small price to pay for our families’ health,” he said.

Outgoing Senate President Vicente Sotto III said policies of either the national or local governments must be science-based and data-driven.

“Who between the two governments has such a basis? Then that one must prevail,” he said.

This is not the first time Garcia drew controversy over her COVID-19 policies.

In 2020, Garcia called out doctors who criticized “tuob” or steam inhalation as therapy for COVID-19, a recommendation made by the Cebu Provincial Government for its employees.

The governor also drew flak from the online community after she revealed in a Facebook comment in 2020 that she refuses to wear a mask because it allegedly causes her to “inhale back” carbon dioxide she exhales, which she claimed “causes exhaustion, lowers her immune system, and affects her brain.”

The Department of Health has since clarified that steam inhalation may actually cause further irritation in the throat and is not recommended as treatment or prevention for COVID-19.

On Monday, the governor also issued a memorandum reminding all mayors in the province that COVID-19 vaccination should not be considered as an additional mandatory requirement for educational, employment, and other similar government transaction purposes.

“Rural Health Units should not be used by Department of Education District Superintendents, District Supervisors, and School Heads in order to discriminate against unvaccinated teachers, students, or parents,” the memorandum stated.

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