WITH the number of coronavirus infections still in triple figures, it is difficult to deny that the picture in Cebu City is, although perhaps not alarming, bad. But can you imagine how much worse it could have been if we had not scaled down the religious activities of the Pista Senior and ditch altogether the cultural side of the celebration?
It helped that we had the benefit of experience. Two weeks after All Saints’ and All Souls’ days during which families and friends took advantage of the holiday break and gathered together, the number of Covid-19 cases rose. It happened again two weeks after the start of the Christmas dawn masses as many churchgoers ignored appeals by both religious and civil officials to observe social distancing.
Having seen the connection and working against a backdrop of consistently increasing Covid-19 cases, the Augustinian fathers announced a cutback in the Sinulog’s religious activities. Deleted from the Church calendar were the Walk with Mary on the first day of the Novena, the fluvial parade and the Saturday procession that never failed to draw at least a million devotees in recent years.
On the cultural side, Vice Mayor Mike Rama, who headed the sponsoring Sinulog Foundation announced that there was going to be no more street dancing and no Sinulog dance contest before a crowd at the Cebu City Sports Center.
Rama instead proposed an “unorthodox, unconventional, innovative and virtual Sinulog” at the South Road Properties with no audience in attendance. He, however, balked at suggestions to completely do away with the Sinulog this year, citing its cultural significance.
Amid relentless criticism from the public and the firm objection by the IATF that the “dance in a bubble” that he proposed still meant gathering the dancers of each contingent for practice and the presentation, Rama relented and canceled the Sinulog.
In the meantime, daily novena masses were said at the Basilica, attended by thousands of people despite appeals from both the Church and City Hall for them to hear mass virtually. Again, the advice to physically distance was ignored.
Recognizing that what was going on was a disaster in the making, Mayor Edgar Labella sent emissaries to the Basilica to discuss how they could get out of a potentially explosive situation. After the meeting, the Augustinian fathers declared that there would no more in-person masses at the Basilica and the pilgrims’ center effective Jan. 12.
Labella’s diplomacy worked. If he had instead ordered the Church to limit the number of churchgoers for every mass or banned physical attendance altogether, he would have been in hot water. The freedom of worship is a constitutional right and as the U.S. Supreme Court declared in a recent case against the governor of New York, “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Lowering the number of new coronavirus infections to the pre-Christmas level remains a tall order. But we can find at least minimum comfort that without the interventions, it could have been worse.