Lawyers: Mask easing doesn’t cover private sector

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

PRIVATE businesses should still be able to enforce the mask mandate despite a Philippine government order making it optional outdoors, according to legal experts.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s order allowing Filipinos not to wear face masks in well-ventilated outdoor areas could only cover public space, not private areas owned by private companies, Terry L. Ridon, a former congressman, said on Tuesday.

“The order is limited to public places and noncrowded areas owned and operated by the government,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Owners and operators of private spaces are free to choose whether to adopt the same policy or maintain a mask mandate within their premises.”

“Ultimately, the government will have to respect private prerogatives within their own premises,” he added.

“This executive order on mask-wearing by itself is not enough,” lawyer and policy analyst Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said in a Messenger chat, adding that “it could only be enforced as a guideline within the Executive branch.”

Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

Mr. Ridon said malls with wide open spaces would probably relax their own mask mandates, unlike those with limited open spaces.

The order makes the use of face masks voluntary in open spaces and noncrowded areas with good ventilation.

“Unfortunately, open, noncrowded and good ventilation are all open to personal interpretation and opinion,” lawyer Theodore O. Te, a former Supreme Court spokesman, tweeted on Monday. 

But Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña, who is also a lawyer, said the policy is clear, noting that it allows agencies to be flexible.

“The policy is clear but is intended really to be flexible,” he said in a Messenger chat. “This makes sense and allows local governments, offices and establishments to use common sense in applying the policy.”

“In public spaces, the onus is on specific government offices to maintain mask mandates in typically crowded areas, such as frontline offices, train stations and public utility vehicles,” Mr. Ridon said.

Under Executive Order 3, Filipinos should still wear masks in outdoor areas that are crowded. It does not have a penalty clause.

“I surmise the current government is not interested in jailing mask mandate violators at a time when the focus should be on economic recovery,” Mr. Ridon said. “This is a government that is apparently shifting from the previous government’s arm-twisting on the smallest of slights.”

Mr. Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo R. Duterte, had ordered police to arrest people who ignored mask rules.

“The best way to avoid being arrested while the guidelines are being formulated is to wear a face mask and obey the law,” former Justice Secretary now Solicitor General Menardo I. Guevarra said in May last year.

In the same month, the Interior and Local Government department said 904 people were arrested in five days for failing to wear face masks.

The Philippines under Mr. Duterte had enforced one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns. 

Some health experts have been critical of the optional mask policy, saying the Philippines’ booster uptake remained low. The Philippines posted 15,379 cases on Sept. 5 to 11, or a daily average of 2,197 infections. 

The policy might be a bit early since the low transmission rate in the Philippines is highly attributed to people observing minimum public health standards, including wearing masks, Joey Francis Hernandez, treasurer of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians, said in a Messenger chat on Monday.

“It would also be more difficult to control the spread of the coronavirus, considering that even if physically distanced, coughing and sneezing can transmit droplets potentially infected with SARS-CoV-2,” he said.

He said it might be better to wait until the government reaches the first booster target, which is at least 50% based on a presidential mandate, “before we loosen mask mandates even outdoors.”