BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – Bacolod Mayor Evelio Leonardia’s move to relax travel rules for entry to this city could worsen the spread of COVID-19 but the business community fully supports the decision as crucial to economic recovery.
“We’re very, very pleased,” Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry vice president Frank Carbon told Rappler in a telephone interview on Monday, January 24.
“It will encourage other local government units to open up, even if just between Negros and Panay, and money can circulate because trade will be easier,” Carbon said.
Leonardia released Executive Order 3 on Sunday, January 23, lifting the RT-PCR requirement for fully vaccinated, in-bound passengers from Region 6 (Western Visayas) and Negros Oriental, which falls under Region 7 (Central Visayas).
It also allows the unvaccinated and partially unvaccinated to enter with only the results of rapid antigen tests, taken no more than 24 hours prior to arrival, plus a simple screening for symptoms at the port or area of entry.
The EO’s release came on the day the city reported 266 new cases, all but two local transmissions.
Iloilo City met Bacolod halfway, lifting RT-PCR tests for the fully vaccinated.
But Mayor Jerry Treñas’ new Executive Order 004-C retains an RT-PCR test requirement for unvaccinated or partially unvaccinated persons, plus the S-Pass.
The Negros Occidental Provincial Incident Management Team recommended keeping the RT-PCR test policy and S-pass requirement for all travelers from Alert Level 3 areas, regardless of vaccination status, after it convened on Thursday, January 20.
“We need border control. It’s hard to locate the affected travelers once they enter the province. It’s better to identify them immediately so we can isolate and quarantine them,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Ernell Tumimbang said.
The province’s major ports are in Bacolod City, where the new policy could open the floodgates of potential breakthrough infections to enter other areas of the province.
The city, however, faces a problem with land travelers from Negros Oriental who will also have to pass through provincial checkpoints.
Carbon downplayed the problem, while urging both sides to dialogue on the issue.
Leonardia wrote Lacson on January 24 for a meeting on the RT-PCR requirement for arrivals from the capital, saying laboratories there were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases.
“We asked ourselves, is it work the risk? The answer is yes, and that risk will be mitigated if within the LGUs, they strictly enforce health protocols,” Carbon told Rappler.
“It’s just too expensive for small businesses to have to do RT-PCR tests; they’ve suffered enough,” he said.
Bold or premature?
“We must learn how to live with the virus and adjust do it accordingly and cautiously,” said Leonardia in a message released by the city information office.
Medical experts and critics of the new policy called it premature, citing rising COVID-19 metrics.
“They like to show their independence, but in a pandemic there is no distinction in impact,” said Negros Occidental Vice Governor Jeffrey Ferrer, the acting provincial chief executive as Governor Eugenio Jose “Bong” Lacson recovers from COVID-19.
Dr. Ronel Sario, Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) Negros Occidental chapter president, said the easing of border restrictions is “too soon” as the surge is still in its early stage.
There is a need to protect the borders to curb virus transmission and to bring down the cases, and to continue to be strict on entry requirements, he added.
The DOH Region 6 January 23 situational report said Bacolod logged 1,534 new cases from January 7 to 20, while Negros Occidental had 1,920 cases and Iloilo City 3,558.
The city’s average daily attack rate (ADAR) – the number of new cases over the past 14 days per 100,000 population – jumped from 3.45 to 18.79 on January 23.
The province’s ADAR increased from 1.01 to 5.29 over the same period. Iloilo City has the worst ADAR in Western Visayas, at 53.59.
The DOH has placed Bacolod, Iloilo City, and the provinces of Aklan, Antique, and Capiz under its critical list. Negros Occidental, Iloilo province, and Guimaras are high risk areas. – with a report from Joseph B.A. Marzan/Rappler.com