By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
PHILIPPINE President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. will make mask-wearing indoors optional, as the Southeast Asian nation tries to attract more foreigners into its tourism industry.
He was expected to issue an executive order about the policy after meeting with Cabinet officials on Tuesday, Tourism Secretary Ma. Esperanza Christina Codilla Frasco told a televised news briefing.
“It was agreed that the president would be issuing an executive order to make indoor mask wearing also voluntary all over the Philippines with a few exceptions,” she said.
People should still wear face masks in public transportation and medical facilities, Ms. Frasco said. Unvaccinated people, those with health complications and senior citizens are still “highly encouraged” to wear face masks, she added.
“The direction of the Marcos administration is to lift the remaining travel restrictions in the Philippines,” she said. “That includes easing of our mask mandate.”
Ms. Frasco said the move was aimed at making the Philippines at par with its regional neighbors that have long done away with mask requirements.
Pre-departure RT-PCR testing for inbound travelers would also be removed. “As far as unvaccinated foreigners are concerned, they would henceforth be allowed entry into the Philippines with only the requirement of presenting an antigen test taken 24 hours before departure or an option of taking an antigen test upon arrival into the Philippines,” she added.
“The overarching direction of the Marcos administration is to allow our country to convey an openness and readiness to the world to receive tourists and investments so that we would give our fellow Filipinos an opportunity to regain all the livelihood and losses that were incurred during the pandemic,” the Tourism chief said.
Noe Lineses, who owns an online platform that organizes trips and tours in Puerto Galera, a popular beach destination south of the Philippine capital, expects the move to boost tourist arrivals in his hometown.
“Time to come out of our shells and showcase our readiness to accept tourists and compete with other Asian countries,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Tourism can help get us out of the current economic quagmire.”
But not everyone is happy, given that the announcement came in the absence of a full-pledged Health secretary. Experts said the lack of proper ventilation in business establishments should not be underestimated.
Joshua C. Agar, a wind engineer from the University of the Philippines, said the government should realize that the coronavirus is still here.
SARS-CoV-2-laden aerosols “are transmitted over short-range and long-range” and easily accumulate within poorly ventilated indoor spaces,” he said in a Twitter message. “Well-filtering mask, when used properly, filters the air that we breathe, catching these aerosols before getting into our lungs,” Mr. Agar said.
“And on top of the incoming variants? The virus can never mutate past physical measures,” he added, citing the filtration offered by face masks.
Joey Francis Hernandez, treasurer of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians, said the relaxation of pandemic rules were not being complemented by efforts to ensure proper ventilation in business establishments.
“Making mask-wearing voluntary indoors should go hand in hand with enforcing or encouraging business establishments to ensure that ventilation indoors is okay and won’t make unmasked individuals sick,” he said in a Messenger chat. “We are not seeing this move to complement this loosening of the mask mandate.”
He said the Cabinet decision is risky since businesses appeared to be unprepared for the holiday season. “Establishments are not prepared to add ventilation safeguards.”
“While there are existing recommendations for ventilation, there are few establishments that are willing to invest in it,” he said. “It’s not even mandatory as part of licensing business establishments.”
In a statement, the Department of Health said the state’s pandemic task force had taken into consideration the concerns of all sectors.
“The more layers of protection we employ, the more protected we are against COVID-19,” it said. The decision to ease masking gives everyone the liberty to decide “based on personal context.”
“With this freedom to choose, it is therefore important for us to assess our individual risk thoroughly before deciding if it is safe and wise to remove our masks,” DoH said.
John Ryan R. Canlas, a 24-year-old researcher who loves traveling, said he would rather wear a mask especially indoors.
“Being masked up is still the simplest method to protect myself and others from the virus,” he said in a Messenger chat.
He worries that making masks optional would do more harm than good. “They are rushing things. It affects the public in a negative way, that we should not be afraid of the virus anymore.”
Mr. Marcos, 65, has yet to appoint his Health chief. Last week, he told reporters he would only name his Health secretary once the Philippines’ COVID-19 situation has returned to normal.
The Philippines posted 11,995 coronavirus infections in the past week, with a daily average of 1,714 cases. The country has detected its first cases of the new Omicron XBB subvariant and XBC variant, which is said to be a recombinant of the Delta and BA.2 variants.