‘Don’t make up laws,’ Biazon tells LTO over face mask mix-up

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    MUNTINLUPA Rep. Ruffy Biazon yesterday took the Land Transportation Office (LTO) to task for insisting that drivers who are not wearing face masks inside their vehicles and allowing passengers to do the same are guilty of “reckless driving” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Biazon chided LTO chief Edgar Galvante, saying the law on reckless driving, Republic Act No. 4136 or the “Land Transportation and Traffic Code,” cannot be cited as basis to support the agency’s position.

    “How can somebody be penalized by a law that is not applicable to that (offense)?” Biazon asked during a hearing of the House committee on transportation, which is chaired by Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento.

    The lawmaker pointed out that the law provides that “No person shall operate a motor vehicle on any highway recklessly or without reasonable caution considering the width, traffic, grades, crossing, curvatures, visibility and other conditions of the highway and the conditions of the atmosphere and weather, or so as to endanger the property or the safety or rights of any person or so as to cause excessive or unreasonable damage to the highway.”

    Biazon said RA 4136 does not mention anything about the wearing of face masks inside both private and public vehicles since there was no pandemic at the time of its enactment.

    Galvante, while being questioned by Biazon, said drivers should not allow passengers to ride with them if they are not wearing masks because of the pandemic.

    “If you, as the driver, allow a passenger who’s not wearing a mask to board, the interpretation here is (that you’re guilty of) reckless driving. Reckless to put in danger your passengers,” he said

    Biazon, however, said the provision on reckless driving clearly pertains to “how you operate the vehicle, how you drive and how you navigate the roads.”

    “(The law) does not contemplate whether your passenger is wearing a mask or not,” he told Galvante, who later said the panel that the LTO would comply if ordered by Congress to stop.

    The agency has issued Memorandum Circular No. 2020-2185 in May last year, which provides for the sanitary requirements for public and private vehicles, including the mandatory wearing of face masks at all times.

    Under it, non-compliance with the face mask requirement will be considered reckless driving for both private and public utility vehicle (PUV) drivers with a corresponding fine of P2,000 for the first offense, P3,000 for the second offense, and P10,000 for the third offense.

    Under the guidelines released by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the Department of Health (DOH) last February 5 which was approved the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), drivers may remove his/her face mask when alone in the vehicle but when sitting with passengers, “it is mandatory for all individuals inside the vehicle to properly wear a face mask, regardless if they are from the same household.”

    RELAXED CQs?

    Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles yesterday said community quarantines would not automatically be relaxed after the rollout of the government’s vaccination program.

    Nograles, who is the IATF co-chairman, said government would consider the downtrend in attack rate, a weekly zero cases of COVID-19 and continued improvement in the health care capacity rate of an area in the decision to ease restrictions.

    “When do we downgrade from the general community quarantine to modified general community quarantine? Once the cases of infection go down… all of it, the attack rate, growth rate, infection rate,” he said.

    Nograles said the government is hopeful that the vaccination program would help reduce and eventually keep down the number of infections.

    The government is hoping to receive the first batch of vaccines, composed of 117,000 doses from Pfizer under the Covax facility, from the middle to last week of February and start the vaccination some two to three days after the shipment arrives.

    The first rollout will be in Metro Manila and would benefit health workers and hospital frontliners.

    He said the IATF would review current quarantine classifications and come up with updated guidelines for the “new normal” in anticipation of the future downgrading of protocols.

    Metro Manila, the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Batangas, Tacloban City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, and Iligan City are all under GCQ while the rest of the country is under MGCQ from February 1 to February 28.

    Nograles also said the IATF is looking at unifying protocols and requirements of local government units to make it easier for travelers, especially those crossing through several provinces or municipalities.

    TRAVEL BAN

    Unlike with the United Kingdom (UK) variant, the Department of Health (DOH) yesterday said it does not see the need to impose travel restrictions to countries found to have the South African variant of the COVID-19 virus.

    In a virtual press briefing, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they do not see the need to impose a new round of travel restrictions as the last one has just been lifted at the start of February.

    In addition, the health official said it would be irrational for the government to impose a ban when the variant is already spread to several areas.

    “When we say South African variant, we know that it is no longer just in South Africa. It has already reached other countries,” she said, adding: “The government sees that it isn’t rational to continue restrictions in our borders right now… We cannot remain to be on lockdown or restricted and isolated forever.”

    The countries where the South African variant have been reported are Switzerland, Finland, Australia, France, The Netherlands, Israel, Germany, and Austria.

    Instead of a travel ban, Vergeire said it would be better for the government to just adopt stringent protocols when it comes to quarantine, isolation, and testing in its entry points.

    “We would just like to have that safeguard that we can strongly observe the protocols of our local and national government,” she said.

    Vergeire also said the DOH is continuously conducting contact tracing activities for the close contacts of the 25 UK variant cases reported in Mt. Province.

    She said they have also sought the assistance of the National Bureau of Investigation for the reported case in Liloan, Cebu. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Gerard Naval