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WHO Backs Easing Of Restrictions In NCR

WHO Backs Easing Of Restrictions In NCR
A woman wears a face mask as she works out at a gym in Manila on Oct. 2, 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by KJ Rosales, The Philippine STAR

The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed support for the easing of restrictions in Metro Manila on Thursday, Oct. 14, but urged the government to be “very careful” and continue its pandemic containment strategies to prevent another surge in infections.

The government has approved the proposal to adjust Metro Manila’s status from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 3 starting Saturday, Oct. 16, as the capital region recorded a downtrend in COVID-19 cases and a high vaccination rate.

Under Alert Level 3, the following establishments, or activities, shall be allowed to operate or be undertaken at a maximum of 30% indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated individuals only and 50% outdoor venue capacity. Provided, that all workers/employees of these establishments are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and minimum public health standards shall be strictly maintained. Provided further, that there is no objection from the local government unit (LGU) where these activities may take place.

• Venues for meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE)

• Permitted venues for social events such as parties, wedding receptions, engagement parties, • wedding anniversaries, debut and birthday parties, family reunions, and bridal or baby showers

• Visitor or tourist attractions such as libraries, archives, museums, galleries, exhibits, parks, plazas, public gardens, scenic viewpoints or overlooks, and the like

• Amusement parks or theme parks

• Recreational venues such as internet cafes, billiard halls, amusement arcades, bowling alleys, skating rinks, archery halls, swimming pools, and similar venues

• Cinemas and movie houses

• Limited face-to-face or in-person classes for higher education and for technical-vocational education and training

• In-person religious gatherings; gatherings for necrological services, wakes, inurnment, and funerals for those who died of causes other than COVID-19 and for the cremains of the COVID-19 deceased

• Licensure or entrance/qualifying examinations administered by their respective government agency, and specialty examinations authorized by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases subject to the health and safety guidelines as approved by the IATF

• Dine-in services in food preparation establishments such as kiosks, commissaries, restaurants, and eateries, subject to DTI sector-specific protocols

• Personal care establishments such as barbershops, hair spas, hair salons, and nail spas, and those offering aesthetic/cosmetic services or procedures, make-up services, salons, spas, reflexology, and other similar procedures including home service options, subject to the sector-specific protocols of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)

• Fitness studios, gyms, and venues for non-contact exercise and sports, subject to DTI sector-specific protocols. Provided that patrons/clients and workers/employees wear face masks at all times and that no group activities are conducted; and

• Film, music, and television production, subject to the joint guidelines as may be issued by the DTI, Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Health

Agencies and instrumentalities of the government shall remain to be fully operational and shall adhere to at least 30% on-site capacity while applying work-from-home and other flexible work arrangements, the IATF said.

“With the high vaccine coverage in Metro Manila, we believe that we need to adjust and calibrate the restrictions, and that’s why WHO took up the position that we support the granular lockdowns; we support the easing of restrictions because... lockdowns have terrible economic consequences and affect the people negatively,” WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said at a press briefing.

“So we are supportive of this but we need to be very careful. That’s why I said, we need to calibrate our response; we need to continue to urge the LGUs to ensure that access to testing is maintained,” he added.

Abeyasinghe cited the need for the people to “do everything they can to quarantine or isolate themselves if they’re having symptoms” and avoid going out so they won’t place others at risk.

“So while the calibrations are important, we have to very careful in monitoring this and we need to be flexible enough to tighten restrictions in very granular areas if we see localized transmission happening within cities or within purok or barangay occasionally,” he added.

As of Oct. 13, about 7.72 million residents of Metro Manila or 78.95% of its eligible population have been fully vaccinated. About 65% of the capital region’s intensive care unit beds have been occupied, a utilization rate considered moderate risk.

Abeyasinghe reminded the public to continue observing safety protocols like physical distancing, proper hygiene and mask wearing.

“Even though they are fully vaccinated... these are critically important to maintain the gains and further strengthen the transmission reduction,” the WHO country representative said. “We now have less than 2,000 cases on the average, on (a) daily basis, here in NCR (National Capital Region). We’re going to see that going down further and so we need to be very careful in calibrating and adjusting the restrictions.”

Under Alert Level 3, a number of establishments and activities can operate or be undertaken at a maximum of 30% indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated persons and 50% outdoor venue capacity.

At the same press briefing, Abeyasinghe said it is premature to talk about “vaccine bubbles” because the inoculation rate for the entire Philippines is still low.

As of Oct. 13, about 23.77 million individuals or 30.81% of the Philippine population have received their second dose of pandemic jabs.

“The understanding is that we don’t have enough vaccine coverage in the country to create bubbles. The discrepancy in coverage is very significant and there is no way that we can maintain the intactness of a bubble,” Abeyasinghe said.

Abeyasinghe said the proposal to implement a vaccine bubble, which would relax the restrictions on fully inoculated persons, may be considered if areas surrounding Metro Manila like Central Luzon and Calabarzon achieve high vaccination rates.

 Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the vaccination should be fast-tracked to make the implementation of “NCR Plus” bubble possible. NCR Plus consists of Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal.

Roque added that it is just right for Filipinos to be afraid of COVID-19 but maintained that the reopening of the economy is possible if health protocols are followed.

“They (Filipinos) are afraid of the virus. You should be afraid because if you do not wear a face mask, you do not wash your hands, you do not observe physical distance or do not get vac-cinated, you may get sick or you may die,” the Palace spokesman said. “But if you wear a face mask, wash your hands frequently, observe physical distance and get vaccinated, we can return to work.”

A Social Weather Stations poll conducted from Sept. 12 to 16 suggested that 91%  of Filipinos are worried that anyone in their family might get infected with COVID-19.

Roque also assured the public that safety measures would be implemented once cinemas reopen in Metro Manila. He noted that only vaccinated persons can watch movies and only up to 30% of the capacity of theaters can be filled.

“No one will sit beside another... There are guidelines issued by the DOH about the need for ventilation and the use of air purifier systems,” Roque said. “Let us also consider the livelihood of those whose works are related to theaters. It’s not just the theaters but also the artists, cameramen and extras who rely on it for their livelihood.”

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) sees brighter employment opportunities in the country with the downgrading of alert levels in NCR and other regions.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the downgrading of alert system will allow more commercial establishments to operate and thus generate more job opportunities.

Napakagandang balita nang ibaba ng (It’s very good news when the IATF lowered the protocol and alert levels,” Bello said at a public briefing on Thursday.

Following the lowering of the alert status, Bello said the IATF also allowed establishments to increase operations capacity.

“With good business comes good employment opportunities,” the labor chief pointed out.

At the same public briefing, Bello reported that the government is considering providing soft loans to enable establishments to grant the mandatory 13th month pay to their workers.

Bello said many establishments have yet to recover from the impact of the pandemic and are facing difficulty in handing out the 13th month pay.

He also said he has discussed with the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) and the DTI the possibility of giving small enterprises greater access to soft loans.

Bello added providing soft loans to employers would enable them to fulfill their obligation under to law to provide 13th month pay to their workers on or before Dec. 24.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez also shares Bello’s optimism. “With most of the remaining economic sectors, particularly the service sectors to be reopened in Metro Manila and at higher operating capacities because also of the de-escalation to Alert Level 3, we expect most of the balance 300,000 displaced workers to be back to work,” Lopez said in a Viber message to reporters.

He emphasized the job figures, however, are still below the pre-pandemic level. He also said less than 100,000 workers in the sectors still prohibited from opening such as live entertainment, karaoke bars, and amusement centers would be unable to go back to work.

Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion said in a statement that placing Metro Manila under Alert Level 3 is a positive development.

“We thank the government for listening to the persistent call of the private sector to reopen the economy in the last quarter of the year. This is a major shot in the arm for the businesses as they try to recover from the effects of the pandemic,” he said. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Louella Desiderio