MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president announced Thursday that domestic travel to and from metropolitan Manila will be suspended for a month and authorized sweeping quarantines in the crowded capital to fight the new coronavirus.
President Rodrigo Duterte also banned large gatherings in the metropolis, suspended most government work in the executive department and extended the suspension of classes by a month in new restrictions announced in a nationwide TV address. Domestic travel by land, air and sea to and from the capital region will be suspended starting Sunday.
An entire city or province could be placed under quarantine if there are at least two confirmed infections in two different villages or towns, the president said.
With police and military generals sitting behind him, Duterte warned that violators and officials who refuse to enforce the temporary restrictions will face arrest and possible imprisonment.
“This is not martial law. It’s not even something extraordinary,” Duterte said, stressing that the restrictions are only aimed at fighting the virus.
But he warned that “if things deteriorate, the military and police will maintain order.”
The actions will be reviewed daily by an inter-agency force dealing with the viral outbreak, Duterte said.
The new restrictions amounted to “a lockdown” but Duterte said officials did not want to use the publicly intimidating term.
“This is not a total lockdown,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said, suggesting that law enforcers would be considerate.
The sweeping restrictions immediately sparked questions about whether food shipments or large numbers of commuters from the provinces would be allowed to enter or leave the capital. Officials said more specific enforcement guidelines will be issued to avoid confusion.
Health officials have confirmed 52 cases of the virus, including five people who have died.
There have been concerns that drastic steps, including a total lockdown of the capital of more than 12 million people, would have a staggering economic impact.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said preventing travel to and from Metro Manila with only 52 cases at this point “is a textbook case of overreaction.”
Foreign travelers from countries with known local transmissions of the virus will face entry restrictions, but the regulation exempts Filipinos, including their foreign spouses and children, and diplomats with Philippine-issued visas, Duterte said.
While the number of infections has been comparably low, the outbreak grabbed wider attention after Duterte himself was tested for the coronavirus on Thursday after earlier meeting with Cabinet officials who had been exposed to infected people.
The 74-year-old Duterte has no symptoms of the disease but wanted to make sure he is healthy and can continue to engage with the public, said Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, a former presidential aide who still accompanies Duterte to official functions.
Go, who was elected to the Senate last year, told reporters the result of the test on Duterte was expected in 48 hours.
At least nine Cabinet members, including Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, have said they were exposed separately to COVID-19 patients and decided to self-quarantine. Several mayors and senators have also gone into home quarantine after coming into contact with patients.
Buildings in the presidential palace compound, including chandelier-lit halls where the president hosts large domestic and foreign gatherings, and a news conference hall and press working area were disinfected Thursday after recent visits by officials who may have been exposed to the virus, officials said.
Duterte’s elite presidential guards announced early this week that they will enforce a “no touch policy” for Duterte to protect him from the virus and screen politicians and dignitaries who get near him. But Duterte played down the restrictions and suggested that he was not intimidated by the disease.
“That protocol is foolish. I will shake hands,” Duterte said. “If God calls me now, I’ll go. I’m done. I’m the president now, the highest post anybody could reach.”
The illness causes mild to moderate symptoms in most people but can be severe in the elderly and people with other health problems.
Duterte, who took time off from work due to illness several times last year, postponed a trip to Boracay island on Thursday due to concerns over the virus, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said. He had planned to visit the beach resort to promote domestic tourism amid a slump in arrivals of foreign tourists because of the pandemic.
Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.
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