COVID-19

COVID-19 threat in Misamis Oriental forces Opol casino to freeze operations

Herbie Gomez
COVID-19 threat in Misamis Oriental forces Opol casino to freeze operations

Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Jose Cabantan (center) meets with clergymen, lay workers, and Opol residents to map out plans against the casino operations in the neighboring Misamis Oriental town.

courtesy of Tito Mora

'We will continue our efforts so that the casino will not operate ever,' says Cagayan de Oro-based businessman and Catholic layman Tito Mora, one of those involved in the local anti-casino movement since the '90s

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Grand Imperial casino shut its doors in Opol town, Misamis Oriental on Monday, January 17, a day after the government raised the alert level in the province due to rising COVID-19 cases and the threat posed by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

Rhey Yecyec, barangay chairman of Taboc, where the controversial casino opened days before Christmas, said the municipal government ordered the establishment to temporarily cease its operations in compliance with restrictions under the Alert Level 3 category.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) included Misamis Oriental in the list of provinces under the higher alert level category from January 16 to January 31 because of the surge in the number of COVID-19 infections in the country.

But the casino was open until Sunday, January 16, the first day of the more restrictive Alert Level 3 in the province, Yecyec told Rappler.

He said the COVID-19 threat meant the casino, opened by the Gokongwei-owned Universal Hotels and Resorts Incorporated (UHRI) and operated by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), would not be able to have its grand launch on January 22 as scheduled.

“But we were informed that the casino would resume operations after January 31 despite the opposition,” Yecyec said.

QUESTION. Taboc barangay chairman Rhey Yecyec of Opol, Misamis Oriental, questions the casino operation in his village sans public consultations and local permits. (Herbie Gomez/Rappler)

The casino operation was greeted with protests from the Catholic archdiocese in Cagayan de Oro and its counterpart in the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) that issued separate statements against the establishment based on their religious position.

IFI-Cagayan de Oro Bishop Felixberto Calang said, “The mayor and the casino management should listen to the moral advice of their church. The casino…is not only perpetuating morally wrong socio-economic principles, but creates a culture of society that anchors on the belief of ‘malas-suwerte’ (bad luck-good luck) rather than on sustainable life earned through good work.”

The religious groups also questioned the way the casino was opened – it had a soft launch on December 19 without public consultations in Opol, a town near Cagayan de Oro where previous attempts to operate casinos were frustrated because of a strong anti-casino movement.

“We will continue our efforts so that the casino will not operate ever,” said Cagayan de Oro-based businessman and Catholic layman Tito Mora, one of those involved in the local anti-casino movement since the ’90s.

The Misamis Oriental provincial board has started an investigation into the controversial casino operations. During an inquiry last week, the province’s legislators found out that the casino has been operating without local permits and clearances.

Provincial board member Gerardo Sabal III told Rappler on Monday he was disappointed with the apparent shortcuts.

Sabal said, “The casino must first secure business and mayor’s permits as provided for by PAGCOR. If they were required and got a mayor’s permit for their General Santos casino, why can’t they get one in Opol? What’s the difference between General Santos and Opol?” 

PAGCOR has been operating another Grand Imperial casino adjacent to the Robinson’s Mall in General Santos City.

Earlier, provincial board member and former Opol mayor Dexter Yasay warned that town officials who allowed the casino to operate in their municipality sans clearances, permits, and public consultations could face lawsuits based on the Local Government Code of 1991.

Yecyec claimed that he and other barangay officials were caught by surprise when the casino opened in December, alleging that they were made to believe it was going to be used as an office with a warehouse.

The Taboc barangay council has unanimously approved and submitted to the provincial board a petition seeking a halt to the casino operations until UHRI and PAGCOR complied with the requirements.

SPITTING DISTANCE. The Grand Imperial casino (far right) is seen from the main door of the barangay hall of Taboc, Opol town, Misamis Oriental. (Herbie Gomez/Rappler)

“There have to be public consultations first, and then they should secure clearances and permits before they could operate. That is the process,” said Yecyec.

He also called on Opol Mayor Maximino Seno not to allow the casino to resume operations unless it complied with the requirements. – Rappler.com