Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced Thursday that Metro Manila would move toward a “new normal” starting on June 1, with a further easing of a two-month coronavirus lockdown even as health officials announced a record number of new COVID-19 infections.
In a late-night address to the nation, Duterte said he supported a recommendation made earlier in the day by the national task force on COVID-19 to ease the lockdown so as to spur economic activity.
“We are progressing at a very fast rate because we were able to put in place rules to be followed when COVID-19 came in like a storm from the outside,” Duterte said.
“We will move to a new normal,” he said while calling on people to keep wearing masks because coronavirus microbes remain in the air. “That’s why the state has every right to control your movement if you pass on the contagion to the population.”
Duterte said martial law was not in place around the capital – but the government was using its power to protect public health.
“There will be no arrests, detention or anything,” he said. “If there’s any intervention or interdiction done by law enforcement agencies or the military, (their) role is just to implement the law if they are called upon to assist the civil government.”
Earlier on Thursday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, deputy head of the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19, said the mayors of 17 suburban territories that make up metropolitan Manila had agreed to the transition.
“The recommendation is to declare a general community quarantine in Metro Manila, except for high-risk villages that are considered critical zones,” Año told reporters. Previously, the region had been under a more-stringent enhanced community quarantine.
Only three cities in the greater Manila area have reported a high infection rate. Once the lockdown has been eased, it will be up to the mayors to decide which neighborhoods in their cities will continue restrictions, Año said.
539 new cases
The decision to ease the lockdown rules came the same day that the health department reported 539 new cases, the highest spike since the outbreak began in the Philippines. In addition, 17 deaths were recorded, bringing the nationwide totals to 15,588 cases and 921 deaths.
Globally, more than 5.7 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 356,000 have died as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Metro Manila, which is touted as the epicenter of the COVID-19 spread in the Philippines, has been under a lockdown since March 15 to help the government curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Año said special COVID-19 teams would be activated in Manila, as well as in Quezon City and Paranaque to monitor critical villages.
The decision to further ease the quarantine came 10 days after the government relaxed rules allowing some economic activity to resume in the island of Luzon, the country’s main island which is home to about 60 million people and the capital city.
Under the new task force’s recommendation, city businesses and mass transportation except for jeepneys – minibuses that are the traditional mode of transportation – would resume operations. Police checkpoints on the streets would be modified and randomly placed at strategic places to allow a smoother traffic flow, Año said, adding that the government was encouraging people to use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.
Malls also can partially open. Only stores selling essential goods, such as clothing and supermarket, would be allowed to operate.
The elderly and those with compromised immune systems, however, still are not permitted to leave their homes.
“What is important here is that industries can operate up to 50 percent of their capacity,” Año said.