Cebu vs. DILG again as Rama defies national policy on masks

IT’S DEJA VU for the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) as it finds itself confronting a Cebu official again on the mask policy amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, after Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama insisted Thursday that his order making mask wearing in the city “non-obligatory” would remain.Rama’s declaration came after DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos Jr. announced that Rama had agreed to temporarily put on hold the implementation of Executive Order (EO) 5.Rama said on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, that his EO 5 will remain in effect since he had already signed it.“I cannot be deferring the pronouncement because I already signed it,” said Rama.In a statement released earlier, Abalos said he had talked with Rama after the issuance of the latter’s EO 5 on Wednesday, Aug. 31.“Mayor Mike agreed to temporarily put this executive order on hold by virtue of my commitment to bring the matter to the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) for deliberation,” Abalos said.“In fact, I am going to even further suggest to make Cebu City the pilot implementer of this measure since the city has always been first in espousing non-masking policies outdoors for the ease and benefit of its people amid the pandemic,” the DILG secretary added.Abalos said the country is still in a national health emergency and that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. had repeatedly called for the public to be vigilant and pro-active in following health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19.He noted the importance of harmonizing existing laws and policies where implementation should benefit the public.Gwen did it firstThis is not the first time a Cebu official has locked horns with a DILG chief on mask policy.Last June 8, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia issued her EO 16 that made the wearing of masks in outdoor and well-ventilated areas optional in the Province of Cebu, prompting then DILG secretary Eduardo Año to declare that the DILG would not recognize her EO for deviating from the IATF protocol that mandates the wearing of masks in public places.Mayor Rama’s EO 5 issued Wednesday goes further than the EO of the governor because it declares the wearing of masks in the city “non-obligatory” whether in open spaces or not.Rama said Thursday that the EO did not totally lift the wearing of masks since it is still mandatory inside health facilities, such as hospitals and clinics.Section 4 of EO 5 reads: “By way of exception, the use of face mask while inside hospitals, clinics and other medical or diagnostic facilities generally remains to be mandatory subject to the policy of the said entity and or discretion of its administrator.”The EO also mandates persons with flu-like symptoms to wear masks when going outside their residences.It also allows establishments, schools and public utility vehicles to craft their own policies on whether to allow the optional wearing of masks.The mayor added that during their conversation, Abalos said the IATF will convene to discuss the matter.Rama said he would talk with his lawyers to discuss possible provisions that can be added to the existing EO, so that it can be harmonized with the national policy.“I won’t pick a fight with the President (Marcos) or our Secretary (Abalos). Let them tell me what we should add, and we will add these,” Rama said in Cebuano.He reiterated this during his interview with dzBB Thursday.“I am calling now my lawyer because they are the ones crafting my EO. So whatever the position of the national government, for sure we will be attuning to it,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.He said the National Government should not see the implementation of his EO as a problem.“It’s about Cebu City so I’m telling my friend Secretary Benhur not to have a problem with it. Let them have their responsibility of the IATF to come up with a measure so that where we were deficient, then we will enhance. But where we were right, then they will also respect. It’s really like that. I don’t have a problem with that. I just can’t say that I will defer it,” he said.Local autonomyRama also insisted on the local autonomy under the Local Government Code, which gives local government officials power to implement their policies for their constituents.He said the national and local government should instead work together on strengthening the vaccination program against Covid-19, expressing belief that it is the “way to liberation.”Rama hoped that the “National Government will update its policies soon relative to the current circumstances of the pandemic and the unique conditions in every place in our archipelago.”He said the City Government now has other priorities, such as medical concerns like the dengue disease, especially since students are now back attending in-person classes in school.The police force also needs to focus on other important matters when it comes to maintaining peace and order rather than strongly enforcing the face mask policy, he added.Rama also welcomed the proposal of Abalos to make Cebu City the pilot area for a new mask policy of the country.“I welcome it. It would be appreciated much greater if we do as one Cebu Island,” he said.Abalos supports liftingLater in the afternoon, Secretary Abalos expressed support for the lifting of the mandatory mask rule in open spaces with very minimal crowds but said it was just his personal opinion.“Well, there are many factors. I believe that, just like in other countries, if it’s crowded, you still need to wear a mask even if it’s outdoors. If it’s not that crowded, I think not wearing one should be allowed already,” he said in a radio interview Thursday.However, Abalos said the decision on the matter still depends on the recommendation of health experts.The DILG chief said he had also discussed the matter with Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco, Governor Garcia’s daughter, who said that lifting the face mask policy in the country will also be instrumental in boosting the tourism sector which has been badly affected by the pandemic.Abalos said there were only two countries in the Asean that still require the wearing of masks even while outdoors: the Philippines and Myanmar.MandaueIn Mandaue City, which had expressed its intent to lift the mask requirement in open spaces after Rama issued his EO 5, John Eddu Ibañez, executive secretary to Mayor Jonas Cortes, had said the mayor was set to recommend to the City Council the amendment of the city’s face mask Ordinance 15-2020-1531 that imposes a fine of P5,000 on those not wearing masks in public places.On Thursday, Ibañez said Cortes had already had an informal talk with the City Council on Wednesday.Ibañez said the ordinance will be amended during a series of council sessions, adding that the council will deliberate on and modify certain provisions and take into consideration the recommendations of the City Health Office, the Department of Health, the DILG and other agencies. (with HIC)