Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia is defying the national government’s orders to comply with its mask-wearing policy against COVID-19 within three days or by this weekend, saying her province’s optional use of face masks in open and well-ventilated spaces stays.
“Here in the province of Cebu, the ordinance that rationalizes the use of face mask stands,” Garcia said in a press briefing Friday.
This developed as the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), which sets the national policy on COVID-19 with President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval, insistedon the need to wear face masks, both indoors and outdoors.
Secretary Vince Dizon, IATF-EID deputy chief implementor, said other countries record higher daily cases than the Philippines because they have stopped the mandatory use of face masks.
But in her presser, Garcia stressed her executive order is supported by a provincial ordinance and slammed as “trivial” the debate on optional mask-wearing order despite other pressing issues, such as the soaring prices of fuel products.
The governor, who earned a second term in the May 9 elections, claimed that it amounts to “pure ridiculousness” if the public is still required to use mask outdoors even after having received COVID-19 vaccination and booster shots.
The governor said the provincial government follows the rule of law and “not the rule of men who imagine themselves to still be powerful”.
Garcia even said Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Philippine National Police officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Vicente Danao Jr.—who have both given orders that the national mask mandate be enforced—had been pictured not wearing masks in air-conditioned rooms.
“But I guess it does not apply to them. I guess to the generals you don’t, the PNP can’t confront, apprehend, and arrest,” she added.
Even then, the country’s biggest hospital group advised the public Friday to continue wearing face masks as an added protection against the spread of COVID-19.
“We need to continue wearing face masks, perhaps until the end of the year. I don’t think there will be a problem if we wear a face mask; it is an added protection and better than the risk we will face if we take off our masks,” Dr. Jose De Grano, president of the Private Hospitals Association Philippines (PHAPi), said at the Laging Handa briefing.
The Department of Health earlier rejected calls to lift the mask mandate, especially since several cases of the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant have been detected in the country.
Dizon of the IATF added: “We still need face masks. According to experts, it is one of the biggest reasons why we have lower number of cases compared to other countries.”
Apart from relaxing the face mask mandate, Dizon cited increased mobility as another reason for the uptick in the number of cases in other nations.
Dizon said the world must learn to live with COVID-19, more than two years since the pandemic began.
“Why are we trying to live with COVID-19? Because we have to. Because there is a bigger problem in the world now and that is the global economy,” he said during the “Back-to-Vax Champion” COVID-19 vaccination ramp-up event at SM North Edsa in Quezon City.
The Philippines, Dizon said, has dealt well with the virus even when the Omicron variant attacked in January.
“While it is true that our cases yesterday was 400, the highest since April, that’s because since March, we’ve been roughly below 500 cases a day consistently. We already know how to live with it. We know how to manage COVID-19 already and we’ve successfully done so,” he said.
Dizon likewise promoted getting booster shots and for children age 5 to 17 to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination and mask. If these two will be done, we will be okay. We don’t need to go back to Alert Level 2. We don’t need to go on lockdowns. Jobs will continue, watching in cinemas, and eating in restaurants. But we have to get vaccinated, boosted, and wear masks,” he said.
Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairperson Romando Artes were among those who graced the program.
In a video message, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go urged the public to get inoculated, including those who do not have booster shots yet.
“If we love our front-liners, we should get ourselves vaccinated. We will avoid the increase in the number of cases and the collapse of our health care system,” Go said.
De Grano welcomed the decision of the IATF to place the National Capital Region (NCR) and several other areas under Alert Level 1 from June 16 to June 30.
“Wearing of face masks is an additional protection for other diseases aside from COVID-19,” he said.
De Grano also addressed the recent increase in non-COVID admissions in some private hospitals, due in part to the public’s inability or unwillingness to go to the hospital for other conditions amid the pandemic.
“Our admission of non-COVID cases is increasing, most probably brought about by other diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, cancer, and also kidney diseases that have been neglected maybe for the past two years or more,” he said.
“They are seeing how not having their regular check-up is affecting them, so they go back to hospitals now that it is safer. So those are many of the cases that are admitted, as well as high cases of infectious diseases, especially dengue and flu, and other infectious diseases among children,” he said.