The Philippine coronavirus task force had a problem. Many of the country's major cities, including the capital Metro Manila, remain under general community quarantine (GCQ) due to high COVID-19 infection rates.
But businesses, small and big alike, are floundering because of restrictions on their operations. They're losing money fast and they fear having to fire employees or end their enterprise altogether.
The government task force's fix? Instead of waiting for coronavirus infections to drop in these cities in order to safely transition to the looser quarantine classification of MGCQ (modified general community quarantine), they just "reclassified" businesses they previously deemed too dangerous to open under GCQ.
We saw this "strategy" in action when Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque announced that gyms, fitness studios, and personal grooming services will be allowed in all GCQ areas starting August 1.
But these types of establishments were previously considered too risky to open up under GCQ. They were among the "Category IV" industries that would only be allowed under MGCQ.
But in one move, the Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) allowed most Category IV industries to operate in GCQ areas like Metro Manila.
One resolution, Resolution No 59, was all it took.
"The IATF approves the recommendations of the Department of Trade and Industry to recategorize Category IV industries to Category III industries thereby allowing their limited operations in areas under General Community Quarantine," reads the document dated Tuesday, July 28.
They made some exceptions. Category IV establishments like live concerts, art galleries, museums, and tourism destinations remain in the category and thus prohibited under GCQ. They also stipulated that tattoo and body piercing services are not among the aesthetic services now placed under Category III. Thus, they are still prohibited under GCQ.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez also specified that gyms for contact sports like boxing, wrestling, karate, and the like still aren't allowed under GCQ because of a provision elsewhere in the quarantine rules that bans contact sports.
Still, there was a reason why gyms and fitness studios were deemed too risky to be allowed under GCQ. Experts all over the world have said physical exercise in indoor spaces like gyms could cause infections.
This is because the sustained heavy breathing that comes from exercise, combined with confined spaces that may not be well ventilated, could lead to virus-carrying droplets transferring from one person to another.
To address this concern, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Health (DOH) are supposed to formulate health protocols to be required in gyms.
The decision to allow more businesses may soon apply to Metro Manila, the source of most new infections reported daily and which was nearly placed back on lockdown, or modified enhanced community quarantine, by Duterte if not for the appeal of mayors.
Metro Manila is under GCQ until July 31. GCQ in the megacity has been extended thrice after it was first declared on June 1. Its mayors are recommending an extension of this in August.
The "reclassifying" of businesses done by the task force renders the community quarantine classifications – ECQ, MECQ, GCQ, MGCQ – near-meaningless.
Why have different quarantine modes when the government will just change the restrictions that define those quarantine modes to begin with?
But it could also be the government's way of conceding that its lockdowns, as initially formulated, were too harsh and there is now more wiggle room because the hospital capacity has been given a boost.
Roque hinted that the quarantine classifications may not play as pivotal a role in the government's pandemic response after July 31.
"Let’s put it this way: sometimes we have to rely less on classifications. We need to be more innovative in our response," he told CNN Philippines' Pinky Webb when she asked what new quarantine classification for Metro Manila the task force is recommemding to President Rodrigo Duterte.
This is not the first time the government reclassified establishments even if they were initially thought too risky to open.
In early June, the task force reclassified salons and barbershops from Category IV to III, allowing them to operate under GCQ, initially at 30% capacity then up to 50% after two weeks.
Eventually, they even decided to allow salons to do nail services, even if they had initially banned this so as to lessen the amount of time a customer stays in the establishment.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.