Manila’s daily infections may hit 18,000 sans masks

DAILY coronavirus infections in the Philippines could hit 18,000 once the mask mandate indoors is lifted, according to health authorities.

“Towards November or December, our cases might increase from 2,500, that’s the lower limit, to as high as 18,000,” Health officer-in-charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire told the ABS-CBN News.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. would make mask-wearing indoors optional, as the Southeast Asian nation tries to attract more foreigners into its tourism industry, Tourism Secretary Ma. Esperanza Christina Codilla Frasco said this week.

People must still wear face masks in public transportation and medical facilities, she said. Unvaccinated people, those with health complications and senior citizens are still “highly encouraged” to wear face masks.

Pre-departure RT-PCR testing for inbound travelers would also be removed.

The president was expected to issue an executive order about the policy after meeting with Cabinet officials on Tuesday, she added.’

Ms. Vergeire said different scenarios if face masks rules were relaxed, had been presented to an inter-agency task force on the pandemic. “We had this compromise that there would be a unified messaging, wherein we should teach people that this is an informed choice,” she said in mixed English and Filipino.

The Department of Health (DoH) has been asking Filipinos to keep wearing masks even after the government did away with the mask mandate outdoors.

Ms. Vergeire said coronavirus infections would probably balloon not only because of relaxed mask rules but also due to the threats from new subvariants and as Filipinos move more freely. “What we need to preserve would be our healthcare capacity.”

The Philippines posted 11,995 new coronavirus infections in the past week with a daily average of 1,714 cases. The country has also detected its first cases of the new Omicron XBB subvariant and XBC variant, which is said to be a recombinant of the Delta and BA.2 variants.

Mr. Marcos, 65, has yet to appoint a Health secretary. Last week, he told reporters he would only appoint a DoH chief once the country’s coronavirus situation returns to normal.

Experts earlier said business establishments are not prepared to improve ventilation indoors.

Businessman Jose Maria A. Concepcion III said it is time to do away with the mask mandate to boost economic recovery.

In a statement, the entrepreneur, who is also a member of the government’s Private Sector Advisory Council, said the government must pave the way for economic recovery.

“I think our problem now is not so much COVID-19 but ensuring the survival of the economy,” he said. “There are several factors that are making the case for the lifting of the protocols and I believe that the timing is just right.”

Mr. Concepcion said scrapping the mask mandate indoors would improve the competitiveness of the country’s tourism sector.   

“The strong dollar is attracting visitors who stand to get more for their dollar,” he said. “The other countries know this and they are aware of how important it is to show visitors that they have already moved on from COVID-19.”

Mr. Concepcion also said physical distancing “does not make sense at this point” because it limits the capacities of businesses seeking to boost revenue during the holiday season.

People should still wear masks in public transportation where physical distancing is impractical, he added.

“Consumption is very important at this point, and with our own kababayans struggling with high prices, we have to bring in the consumer spending from outside, which are the tourists,” Mr. Concepcion said.   

“The key word to remember here is ‘mandatory,’” he said. “People can still choose to wear their face masks and keep a safe distance from other people. If they are not confident about their protection, they can continue to observe the protocols. No one is forcing them.” Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Revin Mikhael D. Ochave