DOTr bares new rules as eased distancing pushes through on Sept. 14

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Manila (CNN Philippines, September 12) — It’s final. The one-meter distancing in public transport units will be eased starting Monday, September 14.

The Department of Transportation announced the new rules on Saturday following its meeting with several agencies, including the Department of Health, the Economic Development Cluster, and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases – the policy-making body in the government’s COVID-19 response.

The DOTr first announced the start date on Friday but retracted, saying details have yet to be finalized.

Transportation officials in an online briefing said the required space between commuters will now be reduced to 0.75 meter on September 14. This will be further shortened to 0.5 meter on September 28, and to 0.3 meter starting October 12. The World Health Organization recommends a distance of at least one meter, but Philippine officials maintained it can be modified since face masks and face shields are worn.

The move aims to open up the transport sector so that it can accommodate more passengers, after most industries resumed operations with the relaxation of community quarantine measures.

Under the plan, trains will be able to accommodate around 200 passengers once the 0.75-meter distancing starts, from the current 155 to 166 passenger capacity, depending on the rail transit line.

Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chairman Martin Delgra said up to three more passengers can ride a modern jeepney, while buses will be able to accommodate as many as 36 passengers instead of the current 24 or 25.

Authorities assured there will be strict implementation of other protocols to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus among commuters.

Aside from the required face shields and face masks, passengers are also asked to bring their own pens for filling out contact tracing forms.

Philippine National Railways General Manager Junn Magno said there are also discussions on the use of a QR, or Quick Response, code system.

Guards and train marshals will ensure that the one-meter distancing is still practiced while on the queue or anywhere else in the station before boarding the train, Magno said.

They will also see to it that passengers are not taking phone calls or talking to each other. While standing passengers will be allowed, they cannot face each other.

“Pagbabawal na po namin ‘yung mga pasaherong magkakaharap (We will prohibit passengers from facing one another),” Magno said.

Transportation Assistant Secretary Steven Pastor said fares should be collected in terminals and not inside public utility vehicles like jeepneys or buses.

Dr. Edsel Salvaña, an expert on infectious diseases, expressed concern over the government's move to ease distancing in public transport, saying it was problematic.

"If there is a single COVID-19 positive person in the transport, anyone less than one meter from him/her after 15 minutes becomes a close contact who will need to quarantine and can potentially spread disease," he said on his Facebook page on Sunday.

He said while wearing face masks and face shields will reduce the transmission, but people maintaining physical distance from each other is still crucial.

Navotas City Mayor Toby Tiangco also opposed the measure saying it was inconsistent with the prevailing safety policies.

“Studies of health experts showed that social distancing, along with proper wearing of face mask and handwashing, help prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. Reducing distancing among commuters to increase ridership is inconsistent with the minimum safety standards that we have been teaching our people for six months now,” Tiangco said in a statement on Sunday.

He said the country has seen the start of the flattening of the curve, meaning health and safety protocols were effective.

"Let us always put the highest priority on the health and safety of our people,” he said.

Despite concern over the new physical distancing rules in public transportation, officials assured that health experts were consulted and infection prevention measures will be strictly enforced.

The coronavirus is mainly spread through droplets when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. Individuals can also contract the virus when they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth after touching a contaminated surface. COVID-19 has infected more than 252,000 people nationwide.