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Marcos OK’s doing away with face mask mandate

AN INTER-AGENCY task force has recommended the optional wearing of face masks outdoors. Senior citizens and people with weak immune systems are ‘highly encouraged’ to continue wearing masks. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ EDD GUMBAN

PHILIPPINE President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has approved in principle a recommendation by an inter-agency task force to do away with the face mask mandate, according to his Cabinet officials.

The plan, which seeks to boost Philippine tourism, makes the wearing of face masks outdoors optional, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“The IATF (Inter Agency Task Force) recommendation is to liberalize our mask-wearing mandate and make mask-wearing outdoors voluntary across the country.”

Pilot-testing of the relaxation will be done toward the end of the year, she said. “The lifting of the mandatory mask mandate will be piloted towards the last quarter of 2022, provided there is an improvement in the COVID booster vaccination coverage.”

Ms. Angeles said senior citizens and people with weak immune systems would still be encouraged to continue wearing face masks.

Mr. Marcos had approved the plan verbally, and would issue an executive order soon, Health officer-in-charge Maria Rosario S. Vergeire told the same briefing. “We need to do this in phases so we can ensure that our population is protected from COVID-19.”

Ms. Vergeire said the proposal would be tested in areas with low-risk individuals and under low-risk settings. Authorities were preparing the rules on the pilot testing.

A number of Southeast Asian neighbors have relaxed the face mask mandate, including Singapore.

Ms. Angeles earlier in the day cited increasing tourism demand in countries that have relaxed face mask rules.

“Because tourism is front and center in efforts to revive the economy, this matter is being taken seriously,” she said.

The tourism sector accounted for 12.8% of the Philippines’ economic output in 2019, or about P2.48 trillion.

Tourism’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic output fell to 5.2% last year after a global coronavirus pandemic forced many countries to close their borders.

Mr. Marcos and several Cabinet officials on Tuesday visited Singapore for a two-day state visit.

Ms. Angeles said the Philippines is looking at boosting ties with Singapore in tourism, which was a key driver in its post-pandemic recovery.

She said there are efforts to make travel between the two countries easier, including an agreement to standardize health certificates.

“It bolsters tourism both in the Philippines and in Singapore,” she said. “It’s mutually beneficial. That is direct and immediate.”

“This is one of the biggest opportunities we have. If we can do it with Singapore, then perhaps we can standardize it with many more countries, and we can encourage more travelers,” she added.

The Philippines expects more Singaporean tourists to visit the Philippines as it eases coronavirus restrictions, Ms. Angeles said. “We’re getting a handle on the pandemic. Our hospitals are not filling up anymore, and we can open up the economy.”

Health experts remained critical of the proposal.

Molecular biologist Nicanor Austriaco of the OCTA Research Group said face masks should be required in public transportation and health facilities.

He said the easing could allow the more contagious Omicron subvariant of the coronavirus to spread.

“In light of the decision of many Filipinos not to get boosted, it is better to allow for Omicron illness among those whose immunity is waning now to strengthen population immunity rather than to face a possible deadlier variant in six months that could kill more people,” he added.

Cebu City in central Philippines was the first to consider doing away with the face mask mandate except in hospitals.

Its optional mask-wearing is on trial until December, according to an order signed by Mayor Michael L. Rama on Sept. 5. The policy will be automatically lifted if the city experiences a surge in coronavirus infections.

Ms. Vergeire has said the Department of Health had not been consulted about the plan, which could cause an infection surge.

It was not yet time to scrap mask rules, she said on Aug. 31, the day when Cebu City issued the policy. — K.A.T. Atienza