Gov’t like boy who cried wolf in flip-flop on quarantine status – business group
MANILA, Philippines — While other business owners scrambled to prepare to reopen at short notice, Dan Saulo, a cofounder of a vegan restaurant, decided he would wait it out for another week — just in case the government changes its mind again.
He was right to do so.
A few days ago, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said more businesses could reopen in Metro Manila after Sept. 7, which was supposedly the last day of the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), which banned dine-in services, among other operations.
He said the government would try a different approach. Instead of a quarantine that would restrict the entire Metro Manila, there would be granular lockdowns — or essentially smaller areas under quarantine, like just a street, with their own varying levels of restrictions.
On the evening of Sept. 7, however, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said this plan would be deferred. Instead, the MECQ would remain until Sept. 15, which meant dine-in restaurants had to remain closed again until then.
“Of course, it’s very frustrating as a business owner,” said Saulo, who cofounded vegan restaurant Cosmic in 2018. Cosmic currently has around 40 people on its payroll. He said they would always wait for the same information to be announced by at least three other government agencies before reopening their dine-in services.
“We don’t actually [plan to] open right away. Even if they had announced, we were prepared to open not immediately but a week after. In our experience, there is always conflicting news,” he told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
“If the media gets a hold of the information right away, we think it would be official. But at the same time, we try to be more pragmatic about the situation because we’re a business. We can’t rely on announcements if we’re gonna keep the business afloat,” he said.
Cosmic, a vegan restaurant that has two branches in the capital and another in Siargao, is just one of the countless businesses that were affected by the government’s last-minute announcement.
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), the largest business group in the country, said the government should be careful in making these announcements because, for one, these policy shifts really do affect people’s lives.
“Authorities must be prudent in prematurely announcing half-studied policies or policy shifts as they have tremendous impact on business operations and people’s daily lives,” said PCCI Acting President Edgardo Lacson in a statement on Wednesday.
Lacson, who is also a director at the Philippine Stock Exchange, said the cancellation of the granular lockdown weakens the credibility of official policy announcements. PCCI supported granular lockdowns, although it preferred a full reopening of the economy.
“It maybe apropos to remember the learnings from Aesop’s fable about the boy who falsely cried wolf too often that nobody in the village of sheep farmers believed until all their sheep were lost from the pack of wolves,” Lacson said.
He said “recklessly raising public expectations” might cause disappointment followed by frustrations.
18 months and counting
The long quarantine, spanning 18 months, has prompted calls from the business sector to find alternative measures, from reopening their operations to having vaccine bubbles, which would essentially grant the vaccinated more mobility than the unvaccinated.
But the call to reopen the economy is not just an issue of whether minimum wage earners could still hold a job. It also raises questions about risks and the ability to absorb those risks at a time when the health-care system is already strained by the growing number of COVID-19 cases.
Either way, Saulo reminded the public that reopening a business is not as simple as making an announcement. A lot of adjustments would have to be made, and that requires time.
“We balance everything. The safety of our customers, the safety of our staff, and of course the business side of it—if we’re gonna make [money] or not. When we start preparing for dine-ins, it’s not just as easy as announcing that we’re open,” he said.
“There’s a lot of movement that goes behind closed doors,” he said.
The National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF) appealed for understanding from the public following the government’s decision to postpone placing Metro Manila under general community quarantine (GCQ).
Speaking at the Laging Handa briefing, NTF spokesperson Restituto Padilla Jr. said the guidelines for the granular lockdowns and alert levels for Metro Manila were not finished in time.
“There were questions and points of clarifications raised that needed to be examined well and addressed which is why the granular lockdown pilot testing was not rolled out yet,” he said.
Padilla said the decision to abort the transition to GCQ status was made after the NTF members, including Metro Manila mayors, met on Tuesday. Questions were raised about the guidelines and additional and new proposals, he said.
The main consideration, he added, was the proposed expansion of the guidelines to cover the concerns raised by Metro Manila mayors and other parties.
Padilla said the call by health-care workers to delay the transition to GCQ for two more weeks was also considered.
“Next time, maybe, as a lesson learned by the government, all guidelines should be really prepared before the announcement is made,” he said.
Appeal for patience
Padilla also appealed for patience from businessmen displeased by the flip-flop.
“Our contribution here is that we will also be helping our front-line workers because the level of our COVID cases is still a bit critical and hospitals are still full. So, the time we’re taking to prepare for the guidelines might help in lowering the number of cases,” he said.
Reacting to the government’s last-minute decision to extend the MECQ, Manila City Bureau of Permits chief Levi Facundo said: “It doesn’t make sense anymore.” His comment was posted on the Manila Public Information Office Facebook page.
In a Facebook post at 10:27 a.m. on Sept. 7, the San Fernando de Dilao Parish in Paco, Manila announced the return of the public celebration of Masses after the government said it would place Metro Manila under GCQ starting Sept. 8, in time for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But in a post around 8 p.m., the church said that the public celebration of Masses will not push through after the government backtracked. Its Masses will instead be streamed live on its social media channels.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING AND INQUIRER RESEARCH
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