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Police seal Metro Manila to fight virus

SEALED METROPOLIS Motorcyclists entering Quezon City from San Mateo, Rizal province, are checked for their body temperature at a police checkpoint. (Photo by NIÑO JESUS ORBETA / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MANILA, Philippines — “Like a cross between Holy Week and a transport strike,” a coffee shop employee in BF Homes Parañaque said, describing the unusual quiet that came down on the community as police, backed by the military and the coast guard, closed off access to Metro Manila on Sunday, imposing a monthlong quarantine that officials hope will curb the Philippines’ increasing coronavirus cases.

The coffee shop is usually full on Sunday mornings, but this Sunday only one table was occupied, by a couple and their young daughter who kept looking at the empty street outside.

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“Kind of weird, because of the wide-open street and the empty parking slots,” the father said.

The family was supposed to go to Mass but was surprised to learn that Bishop Jesse Mercado of Parañaque had canceled “all public liturgical services” in churches in the city and in Las Piñas and Muntinlupa up to next Saturday.

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Regionwide quarantine

There were also no church services, shopping and entertainment in suburban Quezon City and 16 other cities and towns in the sprawling metropolis—home to 12 million people who had been asked to stay home except for work and urgent errands as the government locked down the National Capital Region in one of Southeast Asia’s most drastic containment moves against the new coronavirus.

The quarantine means the suspension of domestic travel by land, air and sea to and from Metro Manila.

Large gatherings like church services, movies and cockfighting are prohibited and most government work in executive department offices is suspended until April 14.

School closures, originally up to April 12, were extended up to April 14.

President Duterte announced what he billed a “general community quarantine” of the entire metropolis on Thursday after a sudden spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.

At least 41 other cities and provinces sealed off their borders on Sunday to keep the coronavirus out. Among the provinces were Cebu, Oriental Mindoro and Bohol. The cities included Iloilo, Ormoc, Davao and Zamboanga. (See story in Regions, Page A8.)As of Sunday, the Philippines had 140 confirmed cases, mostly in Metro Manila, with 12 deaths. (See story on Page A2.)

Officials issued guidelines on Saturday after confusion over the drastic moves set off panic buying in supermarkets and prompted many provincial residents to stream out of the metropolis, fearing they would be stranded in the capital.

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Nighttime curfew

After deciding last week that there was no need for a lockdown, the 17 metropolitan mayors proposed an 8-p.m.-to-5-a.m. curfew that would apply to nonessential and leisure gatherings like parties, family reunions and concerts.

Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, deputy chief for operations of the Philippine National Police, said the cities would enforce the curfew once their separate councils had approved it by Monday.

Not lockdown

Officials said the temporary restrictions would not amount to a lockdown of the capital because many workers and emergency personnel like medical staff would be able to enter and leave the capital. (See story in Metro, Page A10.)Residents can move within the metropolis on their way to work or for urgent errands, including medical emergencies, officials said.

Movement of cargo and food shipments will continue unhampered, they said.

Few motorists traverse EDSA in Ortigas on Sunday, March 15, 2020, the first day of the metro-wide community quarantine impose by the government to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Nevertheless, by early Sunday, truckloads of policemen and soldiers spread to the peripheries of the metropolis and started to man checkpoints on major entry and exit points.

The Coast Guard announced a no-sail policy in Manila Bay but said cargo ships, fishing boats, government vessels and some foreign ships were exempted from the ban.

56 checkpoints

The National Capital Region Police Office threw 56 checkpoints at entry and exit points, manned by 1,600 officers not all of whom had thermal scanners or wore masks. They only warned travelers to observe proper hygiene and practice social distancing to protect themselves against the virus.

“Our first challenge, our team is not yet complete. People from the Department of Transportation, Department of Health (DOH) and others are not yet here. There are also signboards that have yet to be finalized,” said Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, chief of the metropolitan police.

“Second, we have problem in equipment. We have face masks but we still lack thermal scanners,” he said.

Guidelines coming

Sinas said he had already asked the DOH for additional thermal scanners, as the police had only 25 at the 56 checkpoints.

“We need 100 more to speed up the operations,” he said.

Day One of the quarantine was for disseminating information, he said. But officers will strictly enforce the guidelines in the coming days.

“We will release a checklist of who will be flagged down,” Sinas said. “If you are working in NCR (National Capital Region) and you can show proof of work, that will do for us,” he added.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said his department was coordinating with local governments to use barangay personnel in manning checkpoints to stop people from leaving or entering the metropolis through inner roads.

‘Unsettling feeling’

Some people who could be stopped at checkpoints are apprehensive about the restrictions.

Jay, who lives in Angono town in Rizal province, said the increased police and military presence inspired fear among people and worry, as they themselves could be carriers of the virus.

“It’s an unsettling feeling. You’re just going to work and suddenly these men with assault rifles will stop you. What will they do, shoot those who will not follow their orders?” he said.

“And the threat of being arrested [is] like the government flexing its [muscle]. If you ask me, it’s just adding fuel to the fire. The people are already scared as it is,” he added.

No arrests

The government has explained that violators of the restrictions will not be arrested, but only admonished then turned back. Only people who would resist officers at checkpoints would have problems with the law.

Año warned that infections may exponentially increase to several thousands across the country in five months if effective containment actions are not set in place. He told The Associated Press that it’s one of the worst-case scenarios drawn up by the government along with the World Health Organization.

—With reports from Meg AdibEG ADONIS, AP AND AFP INQ

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