By Corina Oliquino

MANILA — Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Metro Manila may be downgraded to the Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), the most lenient quarantine level, by November if residents observe health and safety protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a radio dzBB interview last October 17.

“If we continue to wear face masks, wash our hands frequently and avoid crowded places, it’s possible,” Roque said, noting the National Capital Region’s (NCR) virus reproductive or “r-naught” rate has improved.

“Our r-naught rate is less than one percent. Before, it was very high. That means, the number of persons who catch the virus from positive cases is now lower than one. Maybe we can achieve that,” he added, noting advertisements urging the public to observe minimum health protocols helped improve NCR’s COVID-19 numbers.

When asked about the holding of midnight masses or the traditional Simbang Gabi, which starts on December 16 and ends on December 24, Roque said it would depend on an area’s virus attack rate and hospital bed capacity.

“If we see improvements, they can be downgraded to MGCQ,” Roque said.

“Most of the areas in the Philippines are now under MGCQ. Only Metro Manila and a few cities and provinces are under GCQ (general community quarantine). Placing more areas under MGCQ is not farfetched. With regard to Metro Manila, it depends on the compliance with wearing masks, frequent handwashing, and physical distancing,” he added.

Easing of further restrictions

In a report by The Philippine Star, the Inter-Agency Task Force Resolution number 79 released on Friday eased the age-based stay-at-home restrictions to 15 to 65 from 21 to 60.

Under the resolution, public transportation capacities will be increased with the imposition of the one-seat apart rule instead of one meter and malls will be allowed to hold special activities to attract more shoppers while the task force is considering the resumption of motorcycle taxi operations and the shortening of curfew hours.

In a live online session on October 17, Cabinet Secretary and Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) Vice-chairman Karlo Nograles said it is not possible for NCR to be downgraded to the “new normal.”

“If ever, it should transition first to MGCQ. In fact, we have not declared any area to be under ‘new normal.’ Let’s do it gradually,” Nograles said, noting the task force may come up with a “soft recommendation on quarantine classifications in the last week of October” and will be submitted for President Duterte’s approval.

“I cannot say whether I am confident that NCR (National Capital Region) can be downgraded to MGCQ. But the positivity rate, r-naught has gone down. It’s a balancing act,” he added.

On inbound travel, Nograles said the government is studying proposals to ease travel restrictions on foreigners as changing travel guidelines require coordination between state agencies and the private sector.

“One step at a time, let’s concentrate first on outbound. The inbound is being studied. Like I said, one step at a time,” Nograles said.

It follows calls for the IATF to ease inbound travel restrictions by December to allow Filipinos and their foreigner partners to spend the holidays together.

Others are also calling on the IATF to ease the restriction by December so Filipinos and their foreigner partners can be together during the holidays.

“No promises. As I said, that is being studied. There will be a lot of factors right now. We are prioritizing Filipino OFWs coming home. For the foreigners, international tourists or international inbound passengers, it is still a work in progress,” Nograles said.

It comes as outbound travel restrictions will be eased by October 21 according to the Bureau of Immigration’s (BI) IATF Resolution 79, which will allow the non-essential overseas travel of Filipinos.

The resolution will require outbound Filipino travelers to present a round-trip ticket, health and travel insurance, a negative antigen result at least 24 hours before departure and a signed declaration acknowledging the risks of their travel.

“According to the ruling, they should comply with the requirement if the country of destination requires an RT-PCR test,” the report said.

As of October 19, the country logged 2,638 new cases of COVID-19 with Quezon City in Metro Manila accounting for 141.

The latest data brings the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 359,169, with 310,303 and 6,675 total deaths.