The government will lift a stay-at-home order in Metro Manila this week as it pilot tests "granular lockdowns” in a bid to rein in COVID-19 cases and revive the economy, an official said Monday.
More than 13 million people in the National Capital Region—the country's economic heartland—have been in lockdown since Aug. 6 amid record infections fueled by the hyper-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
The move to ease restrictions from Wednesday comes after nationwide daily cases exceeded 20,000 for the past three days—double the number at the start of the latest lockdown—straining hospitals as they grapple with a shortage of nurses.
"Localized lockdowns will be piloted in Metro Manila," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, explaining that a household, building or street could be targeted.
“It will be literally a complete lockdown if you are subject to granular lockdown -- even the food will be delivered to you."
There were no further details about how the more targeted measures would be enforced, but Roque said except for areas under a granular lockdown, Metro Manila would be under a general community quarantine (GCQ), the second loosest lockdown level.
The lighter restrictions in the NCR, which accounts for about a third of the country's economy, will enable many hard-hit businesses to reopen and spur local tourism.
Based on previous guidelines, restaurants will be allowed to accept diners and beauty salons permitted to operate -- albeit at reduced capacity.
Limited numbers of faithful will be allowed to attend in-person church services.
President Rodrigo Duterte said recently the country could not afford more lockdowns, after previous measures shattered the economy, left millions out of work, and sank the government deeper into debt.
But with only about 19 percent of the targeted population fully vaccinated and hospitals filling up fast, authorities have had few options to slow the spread of the virus.
The country's infection caseload has passed 2 million, with over 34,000 deaths.
The granular lockdown set to be pilot-tested starting Wednesday in several areas in Metro Manila will have four levels that determine the activities allowed.
In an interview Sunday, Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said the pilot testing would be carried out until Sept. 30 and assessed every two weeks.
Only certain areas such as barangays, streets or subdivisions identified as high risk for the coronavirus would be placed under a granular lockdown, unlike community quarantines declared for an entire region or province, he added.
The strictest is Alert Level 4 where no one would be allowed to go out of their homes except health care workers.
Under Alert Level 3, only 30 percent of residents would be allowed to go out and 50 percent under Level 2, Año said.
Alert Level 1 would have the least restriction under the new normal.
It was unclear how these restrictions would be enforced.
Some local government units in the NCR have already implemented granular lockdowns in their respective areas.
Based on police data, there are 51 barangays in Metro Manila currently under a granular lockdown.
From Aug. 6 to 20, Metro Manila was placed under the strictest enhanced community quarantine amid the rise in cases of the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant.
Metro Manila will go down to a GCQ from Sept. 8 until the end of the month, while 10 other areas in the country will be under a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) during the same period, Malacañang said on Monday.
The government earlier said agencies have agreed to replace region- or province-wide quarantine restrictions with localized lockdowns that may be limited to certain houses, streets, or villages.
Authorized persons outside their residence (APORs) will be allowed to leave areas under granular lockdown but will not be permitted to return while restrictions are in effect, Roque said.
"It will be literally a complete lockdown if you are subject to granular lockdown," he said.
The national and local governments will provide food aid to residents under granular lockdowns, Roque added.
The Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 will release other granular lockdown guidelines that considered inputs from mayors later Monday or on Tuesday, Roque said.
“We will look at whether or not these intensified localized, granular lockdowns will be more effective,” he said.
The following quarantine levels for certain areas from Sept. 8 to 30 were approved by the COVID-19 task force, Roque said:
MECQ: Apayao, Bataan, Bulacan, Cavite, Lucena City, Laguna, Rizal, Iloilo province, Iloilo City Cagayan De Oro City.
GCQ with heightened restrictions: Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, Cagayan, Pangasinan, Quezon, Batangas, Naga City, Antique, Bacolod City, Capiz, Cebu Province, Lapu-Lapu City, Negros Oriental, Zamboanga Del Sur, Misamis Oriental, Davao City, Davao Del Norte, Davao De Oro, Davao Occidental, Butuan City.
GCQ: Metro Manila, Baguio City, Kalinga, Abra, Benguet, Dagupan City, Santiago City, Quirino, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Tarlac, Occidental Mindoro, Puerto Princesa, Aklan, Guimaras, Negros Occidental, Cebu City, Mandaue City, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga City, Zamboanga Del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Iligan City, Davao Oriental, Davao Del Sur, General Santos City, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Agusan Del Norte, Agusan Del Sur, Dinagat Islands, Surigao Del Norte, Surigao Del Sur, Cotabato City, Lanao Del Sur.
The rest of the country will be under the least stringent modified GCQ, Roque said.
The Department of Health (DOH) said Monday implementing granular lockdowns will help the government focus its efforts on high-risk areas for COVID-19 and promote economic activity.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in an online briefing, said their analysis of COVID-19 data found that cases were usually concentrated in a few barangays.
“Why would we close a wide area when we can only limit it to certain barangays in order for us to restrict mobility and for us to contain the transmission within those areas? That is why we recommended granular lockdowns,” Vergeire said in Filipino.
“We’re not going to close a big area. We’re just going to close specific, small areas,” she added.
Vergeire said granular lockdowns would help the government enhance its active case finding, intensify testing, and ensure immediate isolation of cases.
She said they are now revising their case projections to include the potential impact of granular lockdowns.
Earlier, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez suggested that the granular lockdowns would be better for the economy, which has been suffering due to restrictive community quarantine.
Lopez also said that under granular lockdown, more businesses will be allowed to operate, even as COVID-19 safety protocols are strictly enforced.
The Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FFCCCI) said the granular lockdown approach “is a step in the right direction” for this can help businesses and the economy recover faster.
“The less stringent granular lockdown is better. We need to adjust and learn to live with the pandemic. This shall bring back more jobs. It will eventually create more jobs. This will jumpstart a very strong Philippine economic recovery with positive socioeconomic and demographic fundamentals and excellent government fiscal and monetary policies,” said FFCCCI president Henry Lim Bon Liong.
He called on other business groups to support the new quarantine protocol to allow faster recovery of businesses and the government in reviving the economy decisively and fast, “without sacrificing the need to protect public health with the necessary health protocols and mass vaccination.”
Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) chairman emeritus Francis Chua said business owners are against blanket lockdowns, saying they were never consulted before these were imposed.
“We have been saying that the government should allow fully-vaccinated people the power of mobility, so they can work freely. Closing a big geographic area is unfair for those segments with less or no transmission at all,” he said.
The group said they would want the granular scheme to succeed but said the government should be prepared for the full-reopening of the economy to ensure that no economic sector and industries will be left behind.
In other developments:
* Sixteen out of the 26 villages in Wao, Lanao del Sur were placed under granular lockdown Sunday due to the rising cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of three persons in a single day. Francis Garcia, Wao municipal disaster risk reduction and management officer, said the rising number of cases the past few days compelled the town’s task force to recommend a granular lockdown. Garcia said the town's task force was alarmed about the three deaths in a single day, the most number recorded in the area. Wao has more than 200 active Covid-19 cases and the isolation facility can no longer accept patients due to lack of beds.
* Dr. Maricar Limon of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) said granular lockdowns may not work in the Philippines as they may threaten the livelihood of Filipinos who are caught in them. "Will the workplaces be able to understand their absence?” she said. "They [the workers] will still go out because they want to be assured that they will still continue to have work.” Lim also said the switch to granular lockdowns does not speak to “what is happening on the ground,” as emergency rooms are full and ICUs and even regular wards are also filling up.
* A member of the House independent bloc on Monday urged the government to deal with the pandemic through a "risk management and not risk avoidance" approach. Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte made the statement following the decision of the IATF to put Metro Manila under a GCQ. “Such a downgrade of mobility restrictions to the more relaxed GCQ is certainly welcome because with the coronavirus not likely to go away soon enough--as the World Health Organization (WHO) itself has assessed--the best way for us to deal with the pandemic is through risk management and not risk avoidance," Villafuerte said. He cited the need to scale up testing and contact-tracing activities to help slow the spread of the more transmissible variants even as curbs are relaxed. With AFP