Gwen ignores 3-day ultimatum to change face mask policy

·7 min read

CEBU provincial officials were unmoved by the three-day ultimatum issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to make changes to the provincial ordinance allowing the optional wearing of face masks in open and well-ventilated areas in the province of Cebu.

“We will stand by our ordinance adopting my EO on rationalizing the wearing of face masks in well-ventilated areas,” Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia said during a press conference on Friday, June 17, 2022.

“It’s very clear unless the Provincial Ordinance 2022-03 is declared illegal or ultra vires by the proper court of law, not by the outgoing secretary of the Interior and Local Government, not by the IATF, but by the proper court of all. So here in the province of Cebu the ordinance that rationalizes the use of face masks stands. My heart bleeds for the PNP (Philippine National Police) because they are being given orders that have no legal basis,” Garcia said.

Lawyer Rory Jon Sepulveda, Provincial Capitol consultant, said they are awaiting formal communication or a letter from the DILG regarding the ultimatum.

On Thursday, June 16, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año had said they were giving the Cebu Provincial Government a chance to align its ordinance with President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order (EO) 151, which adopts the guidelines on the implementation of the Alert Level system in the country amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic as recommended by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF).

The IATF guidelines highlighted the continuous observance of minimum public health standards, which includes the mandatory wearing of face masks in all areas under any alert level.

Año said they could pursue legal action if the Provincial Government refused to comply by next week.

Capitol officials reiterated Friday, however, that there is legal basis for Garcia’s EO 16 and the ordinance, and that if there are questions about them, it is better to go to court.

Sepulveda said the ordinance has more legal basis than EO 151 issued by President Duterte in 2021.

What was made the basis for the implementation of EO 151 was Republic Act 11332 (Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act) which gives the Department of Health (DOH) and its local counterparts powers for rapid containment, quarantine and isolation especially for Covid-19.

Sepulveda said EO 151 is not a law as it is just based on RA 11332.

He said they also did not violate anything as what is stipulated in EO 151 does not implement RA 11332.

“The Provincial Ordinance is the ordinance for the rationalization of the use of face masks. That provincial ordinance, if you carefully read, follows the national policy of the use of face masks. Mandatory on indoor spaces. That is why this law, EO 151, gibutang nga (it’s placed there) respecting the rights of people to liberty, bodily integrity while maintaining and preserving public health. That is why in open and well-ventilated spaces, we leave it up to our constituents to decide for himself whether or not he would wear a face mask, but we are consistent with the national policy that the face mask must be used in indoor, closed, crowded spaces and those that are not feeling well,” Sepulveda said.

Under Garcia’s EO 16, issued last June 8, mask wearing would be required only in closed and/or air-conditioned spaces.

Masks would be optional in well-ventilated and open spaces, with persons just “highly encouraged to continue to wear their masks especially in crowded outdoor areas.”

Persons with Covid-19 symptoms would still be required to wear a mask at all times when they leave their homes.

Not followed

Sepulveda said RA 11332 was not followed since local counterparts in the DOH such as local government offices have not been consulted in its decisions and directives regarding the pandemic.

“The one interior secretary is claiming to be, that was approved for implementation by EO 151. First question, is it a product of strong collaboration of national and local government health agencies as mandated by Republic Act 11332? No, we all know that. The IATF is a task force composed exclusively of national offices or agencies. No participation or whatsoever of the local government or the local counterparts... The glaring absence of the local health authorities also known as the local counterparts in all the proceedings concerning the formulation, creation and enforcement of the subject guidelines renders it in fact inconsistent or violative of the said law,” said Sepulveda.

“Remember, under the said law, the power and authority rest on the DOH and the local counterparts. Sad to say or I’m happy to know wa maapil ang (not included is the) Interior Secretary, but that’s not me, it’s the law. The law that they’re saying is the basis of EO 151,” Sepulveda added.

Año has said Garcia’s EO and the ordinance passed by the Provincial Board could cause confusion among the people.

But Sepulveda said the Cebuanos were not confused and pointed out that even the mayors of the Province through the League of Municipalities of the Philippines-Cebu Chapter and even the Philippine Councilors League of the Province of Cebu are united in supporting Garcia’s EO.

IATF, DOH

Weighing in on the issue, IATF Visayas chief implementer Mel Feliciano said the optional wearing of face masks outdoors is safe, citing the majority of the public that has already been vaccinated against Covid-19.

“When you’re outside, it’s safe, especially now that we have a higher percentage of vaccination rate. So, safe na rin siya basta outside, especially kung nandiyan ka sa mga (when you’re at the) resort at (and) beach,” he said Friday, June 17, 2022.

Feliciano, however, said both parties had basis in their mask policies, citing Garcia’s stance as based on the Local Government Code, which provides for local autonomy for provincial governments.

He also noted the statement of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that the IATF’s rule on the mandatory wearing of masks against Covid-19 prevails over the province’s policy, as this was backed by President Duterte’s own orders.

Guevarra cited Section 4 of Article X of the Constitution, stating that the President exercises “general supervision” over local governments.

“It will now be the basis of the Cebuanos on the wearing of the face masks outside closed establishments,” said Feliciano.

He expressed hope that the Cebu Provincial Government and the national government would have proper coordination and eventually agree on the guidelines for the wearing of face masks, just as what happened before concerning the testing of incoming international passengers.

“Probably, in a matter of time, magkakaroon din ng coordination at agreement kung ano talaga yung susundin at i-implement ng national at provincial government,” he said.

The more than monthlong tug-of-war between Garcia and the IATF over the testing and quarantine protocol for returning overseas Filipinos ended on June 22, 2021, with Garcia’s decision to follow the IATF policy in deference to President Duterte. Garcia’s policy had clashed with the IATF’s for shortening the quarantine period for travelers.

Dr. Mary Jean Loreche, chief pathologist of the DOH 7 and consultant of both the Cebu Provincial Government and Lapu-Lapu City Government, said only a few Covid-19 cases had been recorded in Central Visayas, particularly in Cebu Province.

As how she interpreted the executive order of Garcia, the optional wearing is only applicable outdoors, as she posed a question as to why beach goers would wear masks when taking a dip in the water.

“Our hospitals do not even have admissions for Covid. If there are any, just a few,” she said, adding that it will only be a matter of time to do away with the masks.

For now, Loreche advised the public to wear masks, especially indoors and in crowded spaces as this plays a major role in protecting oneself from the coronavirus, other airborne diseases as well as pollution.

“I always say that you know your risk classification as a person. You know that you are not fully vaccinated. You know that you have comorbidities. You know that there are many people there. So why would you risk not wearing your face masks?” she added.

Loreche noted the importance of shared responsibility as individuals, citing that it is vital to protect themselves and their loved ones. / ANV, MKG

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