The Philippine government on Tuesday announced the gradual lifting of a 2-month-old coronavirus lockdown in selected areas of the country to open up business and spur the slowing economy, despite increasing deaths caused by the virus.
But in announcing the easing of stay-at-home orders, President Rodrigo Duterte also extended the lockdown until the end of May.
Duterte, who met on Monday night with cabinet officials in charge of the crisis, ordered the implementation of a “modified enhanced community quarantine” in Metro Manila and in Laguna province south of the capital and central Cebu City, the areas in the country considered “high-risk” in the spread of COVID-19.
“For those that would be allowed to go out and work and for those who are still barred, just remember this – the easing up of the restrictions does not mean that COVID is gone,” Duterte said during the meeting, portions of which were broadcast on television Tuesday.
“We cannot afford a second wave, or third wave to happen,” he said, emphasizing that despite relaxing the quarantine, the public must strictly follow rules set by the government. “COVID is very lethal.”
He said that anyone allowed to go out must wear a mask, and social distancing rules would remain in force “until such a time that a vaccine is found.”
Under a modified lockdown, people’s movement would be allowed though limited, according to presidential spokesman Harry Roque. Essential services and work would resume in a bid to spur the economy, while select industries would be allowed to resume operations by up to 50 percent, he said, adding that limited transportation would also be allowed.
The modified enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) will take effect on May 16, and would be in place until the end of the month, he said.
“It is still ECQ but we are opening more businesses to help the economy,” Roque told reporters. “But we remain under ECQ because the threat of COVID-19 is still present.”
Quarantine rules had been lifted in areas with low risk of virus transmissions, he said.
The list of businesses allowed to reopen will be released Wednesday, Roque said, adding that most likely these would include transportation services, as well as “indispensable industries” involved in food, hospitals and other services.
Authorities imposed a lockdown, restricting travel and gatherings, including business establishments all over Metro Manila on March 12. Movement restrictions were expanded throughout the main Luzon Island until April 30, before the government imposed another extension for 15 more days due to increasing cases of coronavirus. Security forces were deployed to man checkpoints, and the country were closed to all except repatriated Filipinos
Luzon, the most populous of the country’s three major islands is home to some 60 million Filipinos. Most of the country’s major businesses are also headquartered in the region.
Last week, the National Economic Development Authority reported that the economy had slowed down for the first time in 22 years, contracting 0.2 percent in the first quarter from a 5.6 percent growth in the same period last year.
Roque said the health crisis had bludgeoned the economy, putting government funds under tremendous strain.
“Government resources are limited, and we need to generate resources for a longer fight against COVID,” he said. “We need to balance safety with the economy.”
The decision to ease the lockdown came as health authorities reported 25 more coronavirus deaths, bringing the nation’s toll to 751. Infections also surged to 11,350 after officials confirmed 264 new cases during the past 24 hours.
Taking that decision into consideration, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters that standards such as physical distancing, temperature checks, and observing hygienic measures must still be followed.
“We are not saying we already controlled the transmission. That’s why there must be minimum health standards in areas under low risk,” she said. “We want to avoid the second wave.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato contributed to this report.