Movement of people in Luzon restricted as island placed under 'enhanced' community quarantine

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 16) — The movement of people in mainland Luzon will be severely restricted as Malacañang placed the island under an "enhanced" community quarantine in an effort to contain COVID-19 infections.

All people in Luzon will only be allowed to leave their homes to access basic necessities beginning Tuesday midnight.

Mass public transportation services will also be suspended, while land, air and sea travel is restricted. This includes transport network vehicle services like Grab, OWTO and Micab.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said local government units can provide transportation for those who are exempted from quarantine and those who will be buying basic needs.

“We can also require some public utilities to operate a certain number of vehicles commensurate to the number of people who will use,” Año said.

People who wish to leave Luzon by air have 72 hours to do so, after which all air travel to the island will be restricted. Filipino nationals, their spouses and children, permanent residents and holders of diplomatic visas will still be allowed entry.

The movement of cargo to and from Luzon will still be allowed.

All establishments in Luzon will be closed, except those that provide basic necessities like supermarkets, convenience stores, hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, food preparation and delivery services, banks and water-refilling stations.

While most work will be suspended, work in the executive branch continues from their homes.

Business process outsourcing companies and export-oriented industries will also remain operational, but only with skeletal staffing.

Work in the private sector may continue, but only if their employees will work from their homes.

Media workers will be allowed to travel within Luzon for 72 hours after the new restrictions take effect. After which, only those who are accredited by the Presidential Communications Operations Office through its International Media Center will be allowed to travel within Luzon.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that those who violate the quarantine may face arrest for resisting and disobeying a person in authority.

If they use force in resisting quarantine, they may be arrested for assault. They may also be arrested for violating Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.

The new restrictions came after several government officials called the laxer community quarantine ineffective as social distancing measures it sought to impose backfired with commuters still standing shoulder to shoulder at checkpoints.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the government was prompted to declare a stricter quarantine in mainland Luzon due to the World Health Organization’s classification of COVID-19 as a pandemic, the rising number of cases in the country and the decision of several local government units to undergo community quarantine.

In a taped address to the nation, President Rodrigo Duterte appealed for cooperation and allayed fears that the new restrictions are akin to martial law.

“Ang kalaban natin kapag martial law ay ang mga taong sumasalakay at naghihimagsik. Pero sa ngayon, ang kalaban natin ay tayo at ang sakit na COVID[-19,]” Duterte said.

[Translation: Our enemy during martial law are invaders and rebels. But now, our enemy is this disease called COVID-19.]

Philippine National Police spokesperson PBGen Bernard Banac told CNN Philippines that their 70,000 personnel in Luzon will be "at the forefront to remind the public to remain indoors."

Some lawmakers expressed support for the stricter measures.

"This is no longer a health concern, a labor concern, this a national security threat." Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III told CNN Philippines.

"Kung walang (If there will be no) work stoppage at (and) home quarantine, I can't foresee how to reduce the growth of infections compared to the capacity of hospitals," House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Joey Salceda told CNN Philippines.

Salceda, however, said the quarantine should be limited to Metro Manila, as an expansion would be "difficult to manage."

'Chilling effect'

While some lawmakers may be praising the move of the Duterte administration, commuters, employers and workers groups are not too keen with the stricter measures in place.

"If you have no transportation, how do you buy food? If malls are closed, where do you buy?" Employers Confederation of the Philippines President Sergio Ortiz-Luis, Jr. told CNN Philippines.

National Center for Commuter Safety and Protection chairperson Elvira Medina told CNN Philippines that the suspension of public transportation "sends a chilling effect" and is also "paralyzing."

Grab Philippines President Brian Cu also said the suspension of transportation may also adversely affect their 50,000 drivers. He said, however, that the Grab is working out emergency loans for its drivers.

The Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines is also concerned that the suspension of work in the private sector would jeopardize the incomes of many workers.

Assistance assured

Under the new guidelines on the enhanced community quarantine, the Social Welfare, Labor, Finance, Budget and Trade departments are tasked to formulate programs to assist those affected by the quarantine.

“These measures may include, but shall not be limited to, moratorium on lease rentals, advancing pro-rated 13th month pay, reprieve in utility bills, and assistance to micro, small and medium-scale enterprises,” the guidelines read.

The Social Welfare Department is also tasked to speed up the distribution of food to the most affected residents in Luzon.

In his taped address, Duterte said barangay captains should ensure that their constituents have enough food.

Duterte also appealed to companies to release in advance their employees’ 13th month payouts.

The Interior Department recommended that a total lockdown be put in place in Metro Manila, the political and economic center of the country, after commuters traveling back to the metropolis from nearby provinces were inconvenienced by long lines at checkpoints on the first working day of the so-called community quarantine.

"Given that we're having a nightmare now in the checkpoints, definitely, a reassessment is in order," Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya told CNN Philippines.

Malaya said they had long been pushing for a total lockdown, but they were overruled by the majority who just wanted to implement community quarantine, where the movement of people in and out of Metro Manila is limited, with only those traveling for work, medical treatment or emergencies being permitted.

Among the countries that also imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 are Italy and Spain. In contrast, South Korea did not order a lockdown and instead intensified testing and efforts to trace contacts of COVID-19 patients.

Duterte earlier placed the entire country under a state of national health emergency as the government raised its highest alert level for COVID-19.

Several cities in Metro Manila have implemented curfews and declared a state of calamity.

The Philippines has so far recorded 142 patients with COVID-19, including 12 fatalities. Globally, the virus has infected more than 169,000 people in 148 countries, killing over 6,500 people, according to the Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 tracker.

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, which is related to the virus which causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but is not as deadly, with the fatality rate standing at around three percent.

According to the WHO, 80 percent of patients only experience “mild illness” and eventually recover. It added that some 14 percent experience severe illness, while five percent were critically ill.

The disease is spread through small droplets from the nose or mouth when people infected with the virus cough or sneeze.

To prevent infection, authorities are urging people to practice regular hand washing, cover the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoid close contact with those who show respiratory symptoms.

Commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Those with severe and critical symptoms should call the Health Department at (02) 8-651-7800 local 1149-1150.

CNN Philippines’ Triciah Terada, Vince Ferreras, Melissa Luz Lopez and Alyssa Rola contributed to this report.