WEARING of face masks inside public utility vehicles (PUVs) in Cebu and other parts of Central Visayas is still mandatory amid the easing of the face mask policy.
This was the call of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) 7 Director Eduardo Montealto Jr. to operators and drivers of PUVs.
The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Diseases has announced that it recommended the optional wearing of face masks in open spaces across the country to President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who has verbally agreed to it but still has to issue an executive order (EO) to make it an official policy.
The IATF has already said in its proposal that wearing of face masks is still mandatory in PUVs and public transportation terminals as these are where crowds gather.
In Cebu City, Mayor Michael Rama has issued an EO making the practice of wearing masks indoors and outdoors “non-obligatory,” except in medical facilities depending on the administrators and for people experiencing flu-like symptoms who go outside their residences. Cebu Province is the first local government unit in the country to drop the mandatory wearing of face masks in well-ventilated and open spaces last June.
Rama said Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022 that he was “delighted” by the IATF’s decision, and he’s looking forward to the release of the President’s EO.
“I am glad that the matter has been already discussed... I would wish that they would be able to put that up already in a full document,” he said.
Some health experts have opposed the IATF proposal, considering the country’s low Covid-19 booster vaccination coverage.
As for Montealto, he said on Thursday that he advised operators and drivers, whether of air-conditioned or non-air-conditioned PUVs, to require passengers to wear face masks just to be sure since the condition inside PUVs can get very crowded.
He said the agency will not penalize PUV drivers if it catches their passengers without face masks, instead it will provide them with one. However, this could change if their head office or the Department of Transportation have a change of heart, he said.
Drivers then could face penalties of up to P5,000, said Montealto.
Despite the easing of the mask rule in Cebu City, Montealto said the majority of the public continue to be vigilant, having observed that most, if not all, passengers are still wearing face masks inside PUVs.
Montealto said PUVs can get easily full nowadays because of commuters going to their workplaces and students going to their schools.
As for the education sector, students and teachers are still required to wear face masks while attending in-person classes, according to Department of Health (DOH) officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire.
“Classes are done indoors. Hindi pa ho kasama ngayon ang indoors dito sa ating polisiya. Sana po ang ating mga magulang, magkaron pa rin ng pag-assess ng risks dahil alam natin na ang ating mga kabataan, marami sa kanila ay hindi pa bakunado,” Vergeire said in a television interview.
(The optional wearing of masks does not include indoors. I hope parents will assess the risks because many of our young have yet to be vaccinated.)The IATF is studying the possibility of lifting the mandatory indoor mask-wearing in the last quarter of the year.
As for the Mandaue City Council, it has decided not to amend its face mask ordinance pending the President’s issuance of an EO, said its presiding officer Vice Mayor Glenn Bercede.
Bercede described on Thursday the IATF recommendation as “great news.”
In the meantime, the Mandaue City Government called on the public and people working or studying in the city to follow the existing face mask ordinance, which imposes a fine of P5,000 on people caught not wearing face masks in public places.
On Monday, Sept. 5, Mayor Jonas Cortes said the City opted to retain the face mask ordinance, based on suggestions of local health officials.
Also, Vergeire and the IATF still encouraged senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals to continue wearing face masks.
Opposing IATF’s proposal
Some health experts have opposed the IATF recommendation, saying lifting the mandatory face mask rule is “premature,” said Dr. Tony Leachon, former adviser to the National Task Force against Covid-19.
“I think you need a minimum of around 50 percent to consider lifting the face mask mandate in the outdoors and it’s quite difficult to make a decision if the decision will be fragmented, considering we’re an archipelago region,” said Leachon.
“And, of course, travels will actually be crisscrossing from site to another and, of course, the viral transmission will not be controlled in this particular setting,” he added.
Leachon also noted the country’s Covid-19 positivity rate, which is currently at 11.6 percent, or higher than the five percent benchmark set by the World Health Organization.
“The numbers right now in terms of viral transmission are not actually controlled,” he said.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante also expressed belief that it is not yet time for the country to implement the optional wearing of face masks.
So far, over 72.6 million individuals in the country are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or 92.98 percent of total target population.
Of which, only about 18.2 million individuals received booster doses, which are seen to increase the wall of immunity of a person as the efficacy of the primary series wanes after a few months.
Individuals 18 years and above are all eligible for the first booster dose three months after they finished their primary series, while all individuals 50 years old and above regardless of whether they have comorbidities or none and 18 to 49 years old with comorbidities are qualified to receive the second booster dose or fourth dose.
The government through the DOH recently launched PinasLakas campaign, which aims to administer booster shots to 23.8 million Filipinos until Oct. 8.
So far, 2.3 million individuals received booster doses under the program.
While the DOH acknowledged the slow uptake of Covid-19 booster shots, Vergeire said they are expecting that by Oct. 8, 30 percent of the target will be boosted.
Among the basis of the IATF’s recommendation are the experiences of other Asian countries that lifted their face mask rule. (PAC, TPM, IRT, HIC)