Restaurants and businesses in other industries reopened their doors to customers Wednesday as the Philippine government eased a COVID-19 lockdown in Metropolitan Manila and nearby areas, but medical experts warned the move was premature and could cause another spike in infections.
Eateries and malls in and around the Philippine capital region were allowed to let a limited number of customers back in and dine or shop on-site, as long as patrons wore masks and observed social distancing to guard against the viral outbreak.
The re-openings came two days after President Rodrigo Duterte announced that his administration was moving Metro Manila and four highly urbanized suburban areas from an “enhanced” to a more relaxed “general community quarantine.” This meant that businesses deemed as non-essential, such as restaurants and shopping centers, could resume operations.
“We need to reopen to resume business. We can’t rely anymore on dole-outs from the government,” said Daisy Ramiro, 54, a retired school teacher who runs a small eatery in Pasay, a city in Metro Manila.
“I’m hoping to get more customers, but will they come? It is hard to say, especially with this new strain of the virus,” she told BenarNews.
The lockdown was eased a day after an announcement here that a more infectious strain of COVID-19 – The D614G variant of the virus that causes the Coronavirus Disease 2019 – had been detected in Quezon City, a major town in Metro Manila. The same strain has been associated with outbreaks in Europe and New York, and has been present in Singapore since February. The D614G strain has also been detected in Malaysia in at least four COVID-19 cases linked to the Philippines and India, the country's health director announced earlier this week.
At a bus terminal in Manila, dozens of passengers with masks or face shields on lined up and observed social distancing as they waited for rides to take them to work.
“I know we’re possibly putting ourselves in danger, but what can you do? We also need work to survive,” government employee Justin Rosario told BenarNews as he waited to board his bus.
The easing of quarantine measures took effect even as infections logged by the health department kept rising. President Duterte had placed Metro Manila and the surrounding areas back under an enhanced quarantine in early August, after physicians had urged his government to do so in response to a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
The Philippines currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in East Asia. As of Wednesday afternoon, the total number of nationwide cases had reached 173,744, with 4,650 new ones recorded with the previous 24 hours. The death toll from the disease rose by 111 to 2,795.
Dr. Anthony Leachon, a former member of the government COVID-19 task force, said the government may have lifted quarantine protocols too early for the sake of shoring up the economy. It has been hit hard by ripple effects from the pandemic and related lockdowns since mid-March.
“It is a tough call to balance health and the economy,” he said, noting that a rising jobless rate amid a recession could have forced the government to open up.
“Mobility is a key factor for viral spread,” he said, adding that the government must step up its efforts to build health-system capacities and immediately address overcrowding in hospitals.
And with the number of infections rising by an average of 3,000 new cases daily, the country will likely see more deaths, although the government has insisted that the majority of those infected have shown mild symptoms, doctors have said.
“What you are seeing as cases rise now, you’re not going to see them die today,” Benjamin Co, chief of the pediatrics infectious disease section at the University of Santo Tomas Hospital, told reporters on Tuesday.
“The outcomes will be seen four to eight weeks later, especially for the severe ones. They’re intubated. They are in the ICU,” he said.
Basilio Sepe contributed to this report from Manila.