March 26, 2023

Through Executive Order 16, Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia made the wearing of face mask optional in well-ventilated and open spaces in the province. The Cebu provincial board adopted the EO by passing an ordinance.
The feisty governor invoked Section 105 of the Local Government Code in issuing and implementing the controversial EO. The provision states that the Secretary of Health “may, upon the direction of the President and in consultation with the local government unit concerned, temporarily assume direct supervision and control over health operations in any local government unit, for the duration of the emergency, but in no case exceeding a cumulative period of six months. With the concurrence of the government unit concerned, the period for such direct national control and supervision may be further extended.”
Garcia said two years have passed and now she is invoking local government autonomy. She further argued her province is only “formalizing what is actually already happening.” She observed in the last elections, there were huge crowds during rallies and there was nobody checking if all were wearing face masks.
As expected, then Interior and Local Government Sec. Eduardo Año rejected the Cebu government’s policy because the Inter-agency Task Force guidelines approved by former President Rodrigo Duterte is still in force.
He said as per direction of the former president, the minimum health protocols issued by the IATF, which includes the wearing of face mask, must continue to be enforced. Face masks can only be removed when eating or during events and activities where the venue is well-ventilated.
Año warned that the Philippine National Police will continue to confront, apprehend, and arrest all violators of the IATF guidelines in Cebu.
In spite of Año’s warning, Garcia is unmoved and stated Año is on the way out (meaning that he will no longer be the DILG secretary in the new administration) and in her province, there will be no apprehension or fine for not wearing a mask.
Then Cebu Police Provincial Director Col. Engelbert Soriano sided with Garcia. But he was relieved from his post by the higher ups for that reason.
As to the legality of the EO and the ordinance, a legal opinion was issued by the Secretary of Justice, which, in effect states they are not legal. This is because the IATF resolutions on the mandatory wearing of face masks whether indoor or outdoor are incorporated in the EOs of the President.
That being so, between an EO issued by the President, and the EO issued by LGUs, the former shall prevail. In short, the President’s EO takes precedence over the governor’s EO.
But what happens now with the ordinance dwelling on the same matter? Will the President’s EO also take precedence? That may be a legitimate issue to bring to court if only to test the autonomy of an LGU. In other words, how far can an LGU act on its own in regard to the welfare of its residents?
The DILG issued a three-day ultimatum for Garcia to amend the EO but the governor continues to ignore the order and declared their government is standing by the EO and the ordinance.
Also, a Cebu legal consultant noted Cebu province has yet to receive any formal communication or letter from the DILG regarding the ultimatum.
It appears that the outgoing DILG officials are now leaving the matter to the next administration. But we expect this issue will reach the court should the incoming administration stand by the DILG ultimatum order and the Cebu government stands by the ordinance because the questioned ordinance remains legal and effective, until the court declares it illegal.
There are so many facets of this issue that would affect the autonomous nature of local governments. But any ruling of the courts may also affect the action of the constitutionally created autonomous regions of Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera. (DEL CLARAVALL)