WHAT’S HAPPENING. Since Gov. Gwen Garcia issued an executive order (EO 16 of June 8, 2022), which modifies the rule on wearing of anti-Covid face masks, a word war of sorts has broken out between the Cebu official and Interior and Local Government chief Eduardo Año.

Governor Gwen wants the mask health protocol to be optional while the Department of Health (DOH) wants it to remain the same, that is, mandatory “at all times” with only three exceptions.

So far, only words collide and the quarrel has not yet reached the confrontation stage, a scenario where an arrest of a mask-mandate violator is resisted by Capitol and the case reaches the court.

The headlines sum up the exchange: “Gov’t. rejects Cebu’s lifting of mask mandate, warns of arrests.” “Gwen stands by optional face mask policy.” “PNP readies detention centers for mask violators; DILG poises show-cause order against governor.”

The arguments tossed by each protagonist against the other indicate that, like most issues debated in public, the issue to be resolved is not defined, thus the confusion by the arguers and the public watching.

WHERE E.O. AND IATF RULE DIFFER. The governor’s executive order requires the wearing of masks in closed and/or air-conditioned spaces. It is optional in well-ventilated and open spaces although people are “highly encouraged to continue to wear masks, especially in crowded outdoor areas.” Still required to wear masks all the time when they leave their homes are those who are “unwell,” with symptoms of the Covid-19 virus such as fever, cough and runny nose.

In contrast, the last rule on masks from the national agency IATF (Inter-agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) in places categorized as under Alert Level 1 requires “proper” wearing of “well-fitted face masks AT ALL TIMES, whether outdoors or indoor private or public establishments, including public transportation by land, air or sea.” The only exceptions:

-- when eating and drinking;

-- participating in team and individual sports in venues where ventilation standards can be maintained; and

-- practicing outdoor sports/exercise activities where physical distance can be maintained.

The difference between the EO and the IATF rule is mainly on the range or scope of the requirement. Guv Gwen has modified the “at-all-times” general rule and made it “optional” when conditions or settings warrant it. Both have exceptions but the EO allows wider latitude for not using masks than the IATF rule does.

POINTS FOR GWEN. In the trading of arguments between Capitol and DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government), the governor took the upper hand mainly in these areas:

[1] Capitol relaxes the mask rule only under conditions that experts have long espoused: in open or closed but well-ventilated andnon-air-conditioned spaces. The EO doesn’t remove the mask mandate in crowded places and when the person is sick or has symptoms of infection. The province has not “dropped” the mask as some headlines blared; it has merely eased the requirement under apparently safe conditions.

[2] The rate of Covid infection has gone down, people have suffered for more than two years already under rigid protocols and have longed for some respite or relief. The EO also seeks to support efforts to bring normalcy as the community opens itself again for business, trade and social interaction.

[3] Total enforcement of the ban has failed and will fail as the past police actions proved. PNP doesn’t have the force and equipment to detain large groups of people. That wasn’t more graphically shown than in the past election season when police virtually gave up enforcing health protocols. Besides, mass detention of people will just sag people’s morale even much lower at a time of economic, health and social distress.

BUT CENTRAL GOV’T. REIGNS. The central government has consistently claimed authority over local governments in coping with the pandemic, citing the “compelling need” to have a centralized and single decision-making. Manila rules, despite the vaunted Local Government Code, which Gwen has repeatedly invoked.

DILG and DOH are waving that one nation-one rule argument again in rejecting the Cebu province EO and asking Governor Gwen to make it fit into the IATF template.

There may be little actual difference between the two protocols. Both are well-intentioned, enforcement now may be lackluster, as it was in past stages of Covid-19. But local governments have been dominated by the central government from Day One of the pandemic, from such matters as the category of quarantine or alert level to choice and purchase of vaccines to protocols on mass gathering and face masks. President Duterte made that clear from the start, “to avoid conflict and divisiveness in times of a great calamity.” Governor Garcia more than once tried to adopt a different or modified rule on health guidelines but was rebuffed by assertive-of-its-superiority Manila. And more than once she stopped on the verge of dragging the case to court.

CHANGING CONDITIONS. Conditions have changed though.

Covid-19’s threat is pretty much reduced though not eliminated. Experts and ordinary people know better on how to cope with infection and transmission. Fear in many people has transformed to weariness and anger.

Besides, the governor’s political clout is much stronger after the May elections, when she became the largest contributor to the 1.5 million Cebu votes of President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (compared to Vice President Leni Robredo’s 517,000) and Gwen herself pulled 1.4 million votes (compared to her rival Ace Durano’s 341,000).

That, as the President grows lamer with the new administration preparing to assume office on June 30. Governor Gwen may decide to elevate the controversy to court.

Tuesday, June 14, the Cebu Provincial Board was set to approve an ordinance adopting the governor’s EO 16. It doesn’t look like preparing for another bowing and head-shaving (“moduko ug paawot”).