This week, the National Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) made a crucial decision to allow local governments the discretion to lift certain travel restrictions including swab testing and mandatory 14-day quarantine in the place of destination.
Under the new IATF Resolution No. 101 announced towards the weekend, swab testing shall no longer be compulsory for travelers, except if required by the respective LGU. Travelers are also no longer required to undergo facility quarantine upon arrival unless they exhibit known symptoms of COVID-19.
These twin national policies had been at the cutting edge of the restrictive lockdown protocols that had been imposed as a national mandate at the outset of the pandemic, in varying levels of quarantine categories, in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. In the case of Palawan, this effectively closed off the main entry ports to the province, essentially stopping commercial travel.
The anticipation over the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines has emboldened the national government to ease travel restrictions between places in order to revitalize economic activities and gradually pave the way to recovery.
The push to revive the local economy has been an agenda shared by many local government units. This has long been the stance of the provincial government since Palawan was downgraded by the IATF to a low-risk modified general community quarantine status (MGCQ) towards the last quarter of last year.
The IATF decision however has no immediate binding effect on every LGU, as qualified in Resolution 101. Palawan now has to make a decision how it will calibrate its own respective policy regulations geared at containing the virus. The decision of Puerto Princesa City in particular, which is separate to that of the province, will have bearing on the opening of the international airport and its sea port to commercial travel, one that had been abruptly closed since March 2020.
It is a critical decision for the city government to make, considering the potential challenge it brings to keeping infection levels under control. A look at the cases of Puerto Princesa since the pandemic would show that nearly all of its cases of COVID-19 had been traced to individuals traveling from outside, particularly the so-called local stranded individuals (LSIs). Also, while its overall numbers are quite low compared to most major cities, the incidence of spikes officially attributed to “community transmission” had placed the city’s medical response capacity under tremendous pressures.
A definitive rollout of the city’s vaccine orders from AstraZeneca should make the decision easier for the Puerto Princesa City to relax travel restrictions, but there is no indication that this could happen anytime soon.
There is also no clear provincial government timetable on when a vaccine rollout could begin, as Palawan had decided to forego making a direct vaccine purchase and depend on the appropriation from the national government.
Whatever decision will be made separately by the city and provincial governments, what appears important is there must by a synchronized rationale between them. A decision of one will have an effect on the other, simply because the COVID-19 virus do not recognize political boundaries.
It has become necessary that with the IATF’s abandonment of strict travel impositions, a carefully studied decision should be made on the ground in Palawan, involving critical stakeholders regardless of geographic boundaries.