By Jenina P. Ibañez and Gillian M. Cortez, Reporters

BUSINESSES are expecting some improvement in consumer spending as they adapt to new restrictions after Metro Manila on Wednesday transitioned into a general community quarantine (GCQ), which included a unified curfew.

The 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was implemented in Metro Manila starting Wednesday evening, as mayors sought stricter measures to contain the rise in coronavirus infections which reached over 173,000.

“We considered the recommendations of the mayors to actually impose a stricter GCQ (during Tuesday’s meeting of the National Task Force Against COVID-19),” Palace Spokesperson Harry L. Roque said in an television interview.

The NTF, along with other Cabinet members, approved Metro Manila mayors’ recommendation on a unified curfew throughout the capital region until Aug. 31. Mr. Roque said Manila, Muntinlupa and Pasig cities are initially exempted as their ordinances state that the curfew starts at 10 p.m., but their mayors have committed to comply with the unified curfew hours within the week.

Despite the stricter measures, Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) Vice-Chair Roberto S. Claudio said businesses are hoping to see an improvement in consumer spending during the GCQ, but admitted it will still be well below pre-pandemic levels.

“(The) main reason for this is people are still apprehensive to go out to the malls. Limited public transportation availability and ban on person(s) below 12 years old & seniors above 60 years in shopping malls, contribute to lower consumer spending at this time,” Mr. Claudio said in an e-mail on Wednesday.

The 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is acceptable to most retailers because it is consistent with the availability of public transport and reduces manpower cost by removing additional work shifts, Mr. Claudio said.

He expects the curfew to limit dining and food retailing hours, which may improve once the area shifts to a more relaxed lockdown. Mr. Claudio hopes this shift would happen soon, but retailers “can live with” the stricter lockdown if it helps address the coronavirus pandemic.

Philippine Franchise Association (PFA) Chairman Richard Sanz, on the other hand, said they support a consistent curfew in Metro Manila but an 8 p.m. curfew may be too restrictive for food establishments and restaurants.

“It forces stores to close very early at 6 p.m. considering store closing/cleaning procedures and travel time of employees going back to their homes. We hope that this can be amended to 10 p.m. to allow food businesses to serve dinner and maximize sales for the day to cover for the higher-than-normal overhead expenses during this time of pandemic,” he said in a mobile message.

Dine-in at restaurants as well as salon and barbershop operations were also allowed to resume at limited capacities on Wednesday.

“Extending the curfew to 10 p.m. will be a big help for all businesses, many of which are on the verge of folding up, but provided that all health and safety protocols and precautions are in place,” Mr. Sanz added.

However, there are questions on which businesses may be exempted from the Metro-wide curfew.

“We also need to define exemptions like call centers, drugstores, emergency cases, private transport,” Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry-Quezon City President Sarah Deloraya Mateo said in a mobile message. “What we need to emphasize though is the use of face mask, face shield, and the observance of social distancing at all times.”

Under the GCQ, Mr. Roque said mass gatherings of more than 10 people, including religious services, will continue to be prohibited.

The enforcement of the quarantine pass system will be up to the local government units (LGUs), he said.

Metro Manila Council Chair and Parañaque Mayor Edwin L. Olivarez said in a radio interview they want to continue making quarantine passes mandatory in order to minimize the number of people going out of their residences. Penalties for violators will depend on the LGU, he added.

Other protocols discussed and approved during the NTF’s Tuesday meeting include the mandatory wearing of face shields and face masks in commercial places, workplaces (indoor) and public transport.

Mr. Roque said for those using motorcycles, a barrier will no longer be required for a driver and passenger who live in the same home. An Angkas-designed barrier will still be required for those who do not live in the same residence.

“Motorcycles must be privately owned and not for hire and both riders should have face masks and full-face helmets that must be worn at all times while back riding,” the Palace statement read.

The Palace also said businesses including tutorial centers, review centers, gyms, fitness centers and sport facilities, internet cafés, establishments offering personal grooming and aesthetic services, pet grooming, and drive-in cinemas will remain closed “under the principle of gradual reopening” as Metro Manila transitions from modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) to GCQ.

However, gyms and internet cafés may continue to operate at 30% capacity in areas under GCQ that were not placed under the MECQ from Aug. 4-18, Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez said in a mobile message to reporters on Wednesday.

“Presumably those under GCQ before have adopted and allowed the new sectors (to operate),” he said.