Cebu governor clashes with Justice secretary, stands by order easing use of face masks

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 14)— Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia is not backing down from her recent order which makes the wearing of face masks optional when outdoors, noting that any resolution issued by the national government's pandemic response team is not tantamount to an enforceable law.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source on Tuesday, Garcia reiterated that the resolutions being issued by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) are merely "recommendatory in nature," countering the claim of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that such resolutions prevail over executive orders issued by local government units.

Garcia said even the IATF recognizes that its resolutions are neither equivalent to laws created and passed by Congress nor any executive order.

"It is still a guideline. I don't think Sec. Menardo Guevarra has been quite forthright in trying to confuse an executive order of the President himself and guidelines issued by the IATF which in fact enjoins LGUs to issue the necessary ordinances so that they may impose penalties in order for their guidelines to be implemented," she said.

"It's time someone says it out loud. We have just kept quiet and submissive to any statement by these personalities who have taken upon themselves the force of law," Garcia added. "Now I wish to ask: Are we a nation of laws, or are we a nation of powerful men?"

She also claimed that even the June 4 resolution titled "Guidelines on the Nationwide Implementation of Alert Level System for COVID-19 Response" does not contain any penalty clause for violators that makes it tantamount to law.

However, Point 12 of Section 1 under the General Guidelines reads that any violation "may be prosecuted under the appropriate local ordinance or as non-cooperation of the person or entities punishable under Section 9 par. (d) or (e), as the case may be, of Republic Act No. 11332, otherwise known as the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act, and its Implementing Rules and Regulations."

Interior Spokesperson and Usec. Jonathan Malaya said in the same interview that the June 4 resolution was automatically adopted by President Rodrigo Duterte through Executive Order 151 which he signed last year. The EO did not indicate specific penalties but it mainly approved the nationwide implementation of the country's alert level system.

"Although it shows that IATF resolutions are primarily recommendatory, when adopted by the President through an executive order, it becomes the law of the land because this has been adopted by the President," Malaya said.

Garcia also reasoned those authorities cannot simply arrest any violator on the street and send him to a jail that is already crammed, potentially increasing COVID-19 infections. But Malaya clarified that authorities would only apprehend violators first, and arrests would only be made "as a last resort."

Duterte's order clear: Wear face masks

Malacañang, for its part, stood by Guevarra's pronouncement.

Acting presidential spokesperson Martin Andanar said that the IATF's policy shall prevail over orders issued by LGUs— including the one carried out in Cebu province.

"The chief executive's directive is clear: Continue wearing face masks," Andanar said.

Despite this, Garcia's EO was adopted as an ordinance by the Cebu Provincial Board. Local officials said challenges to the policy should be filed before the proper court.

Show-cause order 'a small price to pay'

Meanwhile, Gacia reacted to the claim of Interior Usec. Epimaco Densing that the agency is looking at issuing a show-cause order against her as a last step for insisting on her policy.

RELATED: DILG eyes show cause order vs Cebu Gov. Garcia if outdoor mask mandate continues to be defied 

"I would rather answer to the 1.4 million Cebuanos that have given me a resounding vote of trust and confidence. If in the end, as what media would wish to project, I hope that is not what Usec (Epimaco) Densing wants to say, they would issue a show-cause order, that's a small price to pay for living up and owning up to my responsibility in taking care of 1.4 million Cebuanos," she said.

She also expressed hope that she and the DILG can work harmoniously in a legal and just manner.

The national government continues to urge LGUs to follow the current health protocols amid the threat of new COVID-19 subvariants and low booster uptake among Filipinos.