Wearing of face masks in many parts of Europe and the United States have been met with resistance from people who viewed it as encroaching on their personal freedoms. This stubbornness could have contributed to the high number of Covid-related deaths and infections in the west.

The governments of South Korea and Japan have no problems about requiring their residents to wear face masks. Even before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in both East Asian countries, Koreans and Japanese had been wearing face masks.

In the Philippines, one of the government’s responses to the pandemic is the mandatory wearing of face masks. The enforcement of this policy was criticized as harsh, especially during the first year of the pandemic.

Remember the apprehension of broadcaster Howie Severino? The veteran journalist, a Covid survivor, stopped biking to drink water. A team of police officers and tanod who happened to pass him by, arrested him and took him to a stadium for a brief seminar on proper use of the face mask in public. In Cebu City, the common punishment received by apprehended maskless people was doing a set of physical exercises at Plaza Independencia in the sun. Other forms of punishment included attending a seminar on health protocols, rendering community service, and, absurdly, praying the rosary (as if non-wearing of face mask is a mortal sin that if repeatedly committed would send the violator’s soul to eternal fire).

Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama has issued Executive Order (EO) 5, which makes the wearing of it non-obligatory whether in open spaces or not in the city. He later issued EO 6 after EO 5 was met with resistance from the national government, particularly the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Department of Health (DOH). The new EO sets a four-month “trial period” of the optional wearing of face masks in Cebu City, starting on Sept. 1, 2022 and ending on Dec. 31.

Some quarters praised Rama and Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, the pioneer in making mask-wearing not obligatory in open spaces, for moving ahead of the national government, specifically the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The IATF still has to come up with new protocols in dealing with the pandemic. DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire admitted that the mandatory face mask policy can be lifted, particularly in open spaces; however, she said easing of restrictions must not be done recklessly but slowly and carefully. But her statement begs a question: how slow the national government will be in coming up with new protocols.

One can agree with the de facto DOH secretary that wearing a face mask can protect one from other respiratory infections such as flu and pneumonia.

Why is the IATF hesitant in making the wearing of face masks optional? It can do so but at the same time, it can ask the DOH to launch an expansive promotion of mask-wearing to become part of the new normal as it can help Filipinos have healthier lungs. For sure, there will be Filipinos who will listen. Perhaps in the near future, wearing a face mask would become part of Filipino culture just like in Japan and South Korea.

Despite Mayor Rama’s move on easing the mask-wearing protocol, one can observe that several people in the city—inside modern or traditional jeepneys, malls and in open public spaces—still wear their face masks. Haven’t they read the news? Are they getting comfortable with wearing face masks to the point that they do not mind the discomfort? Do they feel incomplete if they are not wearing masks whenever they go outside their houses?