EXPLAINER: Questions on liability over Bantayan incident baffle public. Roque washes hands, to shun liability.

Pachico A. Seares
·4 min read

AT A GLANCE, the problem is whether organizers of an event that inevitably draws a crowd can be held liable for violation of the rule on physical distancing.

Is failure to estimate the size of the crowd and adopt emergency measures not punishable? Does liability pass to the public officials when they, the officials, initiate the assembly, as they did in the Bantayan Escapade incident? Can a public official exempt himself from liability, as Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque did, by arguing he was only a guest and he preached the protocol even as he knew it was being violated?

WHERE, HOW. Inauguration of Bantayan Island Airport located in Sta. Fe, Cebu and stopover at Kota Park in Madridejos were part of the tourism package labeled Suroy-Suroy Sugbo SMB (Santa Fe, Madridejos, Bantayan) Escapade.

The Madridejos leg of the tourism promotion, held last Friday, November 27, was a stopover, where visiting officials and guests held a program that drew a large crowd.

It was the assembly of people in Madridejos that lit up some explosion heard across the plagued nation.

Under MGCQ or modified general community quarantine – under which the entire Cebu province has been placed since September 1 – mass gatherings are allowed provided a permit is granted by the mayor. While a maximum number under the rules is specified for a religious gathering (50), none is specified for other assemblies.

NO PERMIT OR STUDY. As permit grantor, Madridejos Mayor Salvador de la Fuente was expected to study and decide whether the event could be held without violating health protocol. Or maybe he saw no need for a permit as the permit grantee is the municipal government itself and/or the Capitol, the Suroy-Suroy organizers.

A crowd was expected as the governor, always a crowd-drawer, and guests from Manila were coming. They must have estimated a manageable size.

“NAGULAT SI HARRY.” The crowd, it turned out, was huge enough to frighten presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who was among the visiting celebrities. “Nagulat ako,” he said in a press statement, he was “taken aback.” He didn’t know he was that popular.

No estimate of the crowd was given, but the images of people massed close to one another, clearly violating the rule on physical distancing, were graphic and striking enough to annoy or shock and anger observers.

The organizers and the local government must have anticipated the crowd size. The office of the mayor and the police, along with the Suroy planners, must have a clear idea of what would happen if dignitaries and beauties (often not mutually exclusive) descend on a sleepy town. They must know the behavior of residents who, having nothing else to do, throng activities that are free to the public.

That, plus the belief that the rule on physical distancing could be suspended, particularly because people would be masked and it was open-air and beside the sea.

PAST INCIDENTS. Yet the officials could have been cautious and wary because of past incidents that caused public uproar. They must have recalled the impact of such scenes as seniors massed in front of Cebu City Hall, buyers of “binignit” ingredients during Holy Week at Carbon, shoppers for imitation-brand shoes at a store opening, assembly of EdLab motorcyclists at Plaza Independencia.

Why the go-ahead for the Madridejos assembly and not taking emergency measures when organizers saw what was happening?

It could be due to the lack of mandated focus or direction beyond the usual response of ordering an investigation and doing the investigation. Positive results of the response have not been publicized. Even after the Bantayan controversy, the rules on responsibility are still to be made clear.

MORE SPECIFIC RULES. Local Government Secretary Eduardo Ano Sunday, November 29 said he will investigate the Bantayan incident and the gathering in Batangas where Jinkee Pacquiao, wife of senator-boxer Manny Pacquiao, was the speaker, both involving alleged violation of anti-Covid measures.

Implementing rules will help, such as:

[1] How responsibility is pinpointed when authority overlaps: from national to local, from civilian officials to police or military.

[2] Whether a public official can exempt himself from liability by saying he was just a guest or he prodded people at the site to observe health protocols even as he allowed the violation of some of them;

[3] If one lapse in one protocol can be offset by compliance with another: No physical distancing? Just wear a mask.

[4] How much violation of health measures can be allowed to boost efforts to revive the economy. The Suroy-Suroy is being pushed to help tourism, a sizable source of income for many people in the province.

[5] What exactly is the penalty that can be imposed on public officials, other than the brief though severe bad publicity and criticism in the media? Drubbing at the elections is not something to be dreaded; the polls are still far off.