By Jenina P. Ibañez and Beatrice M. Laforga, Reporters

THE imposition of a stricter lockdown in Metro Manila and key cities for the next two weeks will likely delay the country’s economic recovery, as many businesses face operational disruptions once again due to the lack of public transportation and other restrictions.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Sunday evening announced the National Capital Region (NCR), Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite will revert to a modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from today (Aug. 4) until Aug. 18.

The decision was made after a group of health workers appealed for the reimposition of a stricter quarantine as the number of coronavirus infections continues to rise, threatening the health system.

As of Monday, the Health department reported 3,226 new coronavirus infections and 46 additional deaths. Total confirmed cases are now at 106,330, while the death toll is at 2,104.

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said placing Metro Manila and other economic centers under MECQ again will “negatively affect livelihoods, consumer demand and production” over the short term.

“However, if the time is used to boost all our medical resources and to prevent further spread of the virus, then the MECQ will be positive for the long haul,” Mr. Dominguez said in a Viber message on Monday.

For ING Bank N.V. Manila Senior Economist Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa, reimposing various levels of quarantine restrictions will “eventually take its toll both on the economy and the fiscal position” of the country as the rise in coronavirus cases start to weigh on hopes of a recovery.

“Unless the Kryptonite (coronavirus pandemic) is addressed, no amount of alphabet rearrangements to lockdown measures and relaxing of quarantine protocols will jumpstart the recovery,” Mr. Mapa said in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, business groups are seeking relief for workers and increased public health capacity during the two-week stricter lockdown.

“No objection to MECQ but very worried and concerned about the people who will not be able to work,” Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Benedicto V. Yujuico said in an e-mail on Monday.

He said the government should provide relief for workers that will be unemployed during the MECQ, where there is no public transportation and quarantine passes are once again required.

“If there is no work, there is no salary, no income. Where will they get money for food, medicine, rent and other expenses during this period?” Mr. Yujuico said.

The government released a P200-billion cash aid program to poor families and a P 51-billion wage subsidy program for affected workers at the height of one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in April-May.

Millions of workers will be affected after small businesses that have just reopened once again close down for two weeks and public transportation workers lose their livelihood.

“Rough estimate ko… 2-3 million ang mawawalan ng trabaho to add to those that have been called back to work… so hindi ko alam kung handa ang gobyerno na tulungan sila dahil mga two or three days lang wala na (silang) pagkain,” Employers Confederation of the Philippines President Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr. said in a phone interview.

While the lockdown is in place, American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Senior Advisor John Forbes said they hope total public health capacity to handle COVID-19 patients expands faster than the rise in cases.

He said there should be improved contact tracing, quicker test results, and strict observation of health protocols.

“We should be optimistic that the vaccine, when proven, will be made available to all persons who need it globally,” Mr. Forbes said.

Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) Private Sector Representative George T. Barcelon said the stricter lockdown is appropriate given the increase in infection numbers in the country, which has now exceeded 100,000.

“We don’t have the luxury of time for further locking down which is causing unimaginable suffering to the marginalized sectors. Government must take to heart that such action means loss of livelihood for many,” Mr. Barcelon said.

He said the government should offer subsidies to the public after “financially drained” small businesses have been extending food and funding assistance over several months of lockdown.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in a statement said sectors that have recently been allowed, including dine-in operations at restaurants, barbershops, salons, gyms, review centers, personal grooming shops, and internet cafés will be temporarily banned from operating during the MECQ.

Some business activities under this lockdown can have up to 50% of their operations, including manufacturing outside of essential goods and construction materials, non-leisure retail like hardware and clothing stores, architecture and engineering, advertising, financial services, legal and accounting, publishing, and management consultancy.

Palace Spokesperson Harry L. Roque on Monday said without the MECQ, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country may reach over 220,000 by the end of August as projected by University of the Philippines (UP) OCTA researchers.

In implementing an MECQ, UP OCTA said around 50,000 to 70,000 potential cases could be spared.

Aside from the lockdown, the government also plans to boost its contact tracing capabilities and COVID-19 testing capacity. The government will also be establishing more isolation facilities. — with Gillian M. Cortez