DOH: Cebu City mask defiance sets bad precedent; Gwen: it’s autonomy

·4 min read

THE Department of Health (DOH) on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, expressed concern over the possibility of Cebu City setting a bad precedent in refusing to adhere to the protocols set by the national government in regard to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) response, after its mayor lifted the mask mandate in the city.

Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, however, said local autonomy should be respected.

The Province of Cebu had been first to deviate from national Covid-19 protocol when Garcia made the wearing of masks in outdoor and well-ventilated areas optional in the Province of Cebu in June.

In a press conference Friday, DOH Officer-in-Charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said they are concerned that other local government units (LGUs) will follow the example of Cebu City in refusing to follow guidelines set by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID).

“That’s one of our worries. If such action of one LGU stays, other LGUs may follow suit. That would be disastrous for all of us,” Vergeire said.

“Imagine if one or two or three LGUs will implement differing protocols, what will happen to us if the virus crosses borders?” she added.

Governor Garcia, however, reiterated her call to concerned government officials to respect local autonomy in relation to Mayor Michael Rama’s order making masking “non-obligatory” in Cebu City except in medical facilities and for people experiencing flu-like symptoms going out of their homes.

“We’re not deciding for the Cebu Province. Mayor Rama decided for Cebu City, and so as the rest of the tri-cities. Please respect local autonomy. You seem to forget there is such a thing as the Republic Act 7160,” Garcia told reporters Friday.

Garcia said local officials are more aware of the situation in their areas, which is why their decisions should be respected.

“What is reality on the ground, that’s what we should recognize. I understand that supposedly, I got this from Mayor Mike, that the DOH said its permission should be sought first. You need to do some read up about local autonomy because you cannot all the time keep on directing local government units to follow your policies which, after all, have not totally captured the real situation on the ground,” Garcia said.

Garcia also courted controversy when she issued her Executive Order (EO) 16 in June dropping the mask requirement in open and well-ventilated areas, except for persons with Covid-19 symptoms.

On Aug. 31, Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama issued EO 5 making the wearing of face masks non-mandatory indoors and outdoors.

Rama issued the EO without consulting the DOH or the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), raising objections from the heads of both agencies.

Rescind

“We are required (by the IATF-EID) to wear masks all the time. That’s part of our minimum public health standards. What happened is they (Cebu City) made masking voluntary. It is non-obligatory to wear face masks,” Vergeire said Friday.

“This is opposed to resolution and protocols approved by the IATF-EID and implemented by the national government,” she added.

Because of this, the health official renewed the DOH’s call for Cebu City to rescind its mask policy and instead adhere to the national government’s directives.

“All of us are hoping that we come to a time that we will be removing our masks and have more unrestricted activities,” she said.

“But while we are still working on that, we hope that we will be united. Let us try to implement (the IATF-EID policy) and have a one-nation approach. We cannot just think of our area right now. We need to think of the entire population,” added Vergeire.

She also said existing laws require LGUs to follow national policies on Covid-19.

“During this time of public health emergencies, the local governments are ordered by law to follow the protocols of the national government,” Vergeire said.

On Thursday, Rama turned down DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos Jr.’s request to defer the implementation of EO 5 despite Abalos’ commitment to bring the matter of non-masking to the IATF for deliberation and suggest making Cebu City the pilot area for such initiative.

Not a good idea

In Mandaue City, Dr. Dominga Obenza said making the wearing of masks optional in public places might lead to another surge in Covid-19 cases as some people do not observe physical distancing.

Obenza, head of the Mandaue City Health Office, told SunStar Cebu that the optional wearing of masks might not be a good idea considering that Covid vaccines have not yet been proven to give a person 100 percent protection from the virus that causes Covid-19.

“That is the reason why we have boosters to give us added protection and somewhat maintain our herd immunity from the virus aside from being vaccinated,” said Obenza.

The top officials of Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu City had expressed their intention to adopt Rama’s EO after he issued it Wednesday.

Obenza also said while not all people have submitted themselves to vaccination yet, it is best to observe the minimum health protocols, including the wearing of masks, especially in closed areas, and follow the guidelines of the IATF. (TPM, HDT, HIC, ANV / TPT)