By Beatrice M. Laforga and Jenina P. Ibañez

EXTENDING the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) beyond April 30 would be “difficult,” according to Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia, who is backing a gradual lifting of the Luzon-wide lockdown which would allow malls and public transportation to resume partial operations.

“I guess there will be some lockdown and probably it will be more localized, not like now which is the whole of Luzon, and some loosening up in some areas, that have low risk of COVID-19 contagion will be opened up, will be unquarantined,” Mr. Pernia told BusinessWorld Wednesday when asked for his recommendations after the ECQ ends on April 30.

However, Mr. Pernia said in a radio interview with DZMM it would be hard to extend the Luzon-wide lockdown, as many business groups have been calling for a “partial reopening” with safety measures in place.

Shopping malls, he said, could be allowed to resume operations at 50% capacity or implement a “calibrated opening” if measures such as physical distancing will be strictly observed.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief noted more businesses that address “other needs of people like haircuts, laundry, housecleaning” may be allowed to open.

Mr. Pernia also said restrictions on public transportation can also be eased provided that commuters will observe proper distancing measures.

However, he acknowledged that this may not be possible in congested Metro Manila, so companies that are allowed to resume operations should provide shuttle services for employees.

“Physical distancing can be better achieved [if the] big companies that have workers ay may mga shuttle buses silang sarili para mabawasan ’yung (have shuttle busses of their own to lessen) public commuting… So that the more general public can take public transportation with physical distancing,” Mr. Pernia said.

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) on Sunday recommended the inclusion of the public transport sector in the list of “essential industries” allowed to operate in the event of a partial lifting of the ECQ.

“Premised on the (future) decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to partially lift the Luzon ECQ, PCCI recommends the partial lifting of the public transport sector in support of the slow but steady journey towards economic normalcy while strictly enforcing social distancing policy,” it said.

Mr. Pernia also thumbed down suggestions that the severely battered tourism industry resume operations, saying it “can be done later” as it is still “risky” to allow people to travel.

While infrastructure works for some projects have already been exempted from quarantine protocols, Mr. Pernia said the government wants to resume the “Build, Build, Build” program soon.

“All these things have to be accompanied by rapid testing,” he said.

As of Thursday, the Health department reported COVID-19 deaths reached 362, while infections have increased to 5,660. Total recoveries stood at 435.

Mr. Pernia warned that a second wave of infections may happen if safety measures are not observed after the lockdown is lifted.

“This has happened already in China, in Wuhan because when they lifted the lockdown there were some relapses. Even Singapore also is suffering some relapse and [South] Korea, so we have to be careful in opening, lifting the quarantine in some areas, to be very careful in having precautions to avoid a relapse,” he said.

For Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, any recommendation for the gradual resumption of economic activities “should include a clear analysis of the tradeoffs involved.”

Meanwhile, business groups reiterated the need for improved testing for COVID-19 and targeted quarantine measures if the lockdown is gradually lifted.

“Many (businesses) are looking for much more testing and strengthening of public health infrastructure,” Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of the Philippines (JFC) Senior Adviser John Forbes said in a mobile message.

He said companies are also seeking easier movement of cargoes and essential workers, continued quarantine where needed, and the gradual return of public transport and infrastructure construction projects under health protocols.

Mr. Forbes also recommended the successful implementation of support programs for small and medium-sized enterprises, and continued work from home measures with better commerce. He said mass gatherings should still be banned.

Semiconductors and Electronics Industries in the Philippines, Inc. (SEIPI) President Danilo C. Lachica in a mobile message said companies that can demonstrate safe practices should be allowed to increase the level of operations.

Philexport President Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr. said in a phone interview that there should be improved mass testing and isolation measures in quarantine centers.

He said the distribution of cash aid should be simplified, adding that infrastructure projects as well as some malls and restaurant operations should be allowed.

“Test and isolate. That’s the name of the game. And let the rest of the economy and the rest of the people do their own thing, to work,” Mr. Ortiz-Luis said in Filipino. “Those who can work, let them come to work.”