Airlines, vessel crews barred from GenSan amid COVID-19 threat

GENERAL SANTS CITY (MindaNews 17 Mar) – The airport here has closed its runways to passenger flights while vessel crews in all city ports were banned from disembarkation and embarkation effective Tuesday.

TRAVEL FORM. A couple of travelers fill out a declaration form under the watchful eyes of a soldier at a checkpoint in Tinagacan, General Santos City on Monday (16 March 2020). The form requires the name of the traveler, travel origin and destinations. The city government of General Santos has stepped up measures to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 into the coastal city by setting up double-layered checkpoints and enforcing a curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.. MindaNews photo by ROMMEL G. REBOLLIDO

Mayor Ronnel Rivera on Monday issued Executive Order No. 13 for the closure of the General Santos City Airport aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) into the country’s tuna capital.

Through Executive Orders 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18, Rivera banned the disembarkation and embarkation of vessel crews in all city ports and ordered stricter land travel in and out of the city, temporary suspension of operations for some establishments, designating earlier store closure time in compliance with the city-wide curfew and the prohibition of high-risk and vulnerable members of society from public places.

Rivera’s orders came in the heels of Monday’s nationwide address by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte placing the entire island of Luzon under an “enhanced community quarantine” and gave local officials the go signal to “implement laws and what is needed to make their respective places livable.”

The city mayor also ordered the temporary shutdown of entertainment and recreational business establishments, like bingo and bowling centers, resorts, bars, cockpits, cinemas, internet cafes, electronic games facilities, karaoke places, bars, billiard halls and arcade shops.

Any establishment found violating EO No. 16 faces permanent cancellation of their permit.

Rivera tasked the City Permits and Licensing Office to suspend the business permits of these establishments to ensure compliance. He also urged barangay chairmen to help monitor establishments violating the order. Resumption of business operation will be announced by the city government.

The order to close the airport, known among aviators as Tambler Airport, covers passenger flights. Cargo and supply flight will continue, Rivera said.

The GenSan Airport. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific operate several regular daily flights from the airport here to Manila, Cebu and Iloilo. A third airline, Air Asia, is set to mount regular daily flights to Manila and Cebu, thrice a week to Clark in Pampanga.

Rivera also issued an order prohibiting the “disembarkation and embarkation of sea vessel crews” at the Makar Wharf which is run by the Philippine Ports Authority and the General Santos City Fish Port Complex. All other private-operated ports are also covered by the order.

Foreign and domestic fishing vessels regularly call at the fish port complex here, the country’s second largest, to unload their fish and tuna catches.

Apparently, Rivera’s order only prohibits the crews from going offshore and not the unloading of vessel cargoes.

The Philippine Fishing Development Authority, which operates the fish port, reported total fish landings of 247,637.20 metric tons in 2018, up by of 17 percent from 2017 figures.

In a separate order by the city mayor, the elderly, minors, the pregnant and those considered high-risk and vulnerable members of society are prohibited from public places in connection with the threat of COVID-19.

Elmer Catulpos, president of the General Santos City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (GSCCCI), said the move of the city government is something that must be looked at its positive side.

The business sector, he said, has its own way of dealing with situations like this. “We face challenges just like when we have to face opportunities. Business must go on as there are workers who depend on it,” he added.

There will definitely be losses, Catulpos said, but “we hope to be able to place it at the very minimal without sacrificing our manpower and their health.”

As this developed, bus operators here noted a 50-percent decline in the number of passengers, mostly travelling to Davao City, which was reported to be in a virtual lockdown.

A supervisor of Yellow Bus Lines at the Bulaong Bus terminal here said passengers have decreased 30 to 50 percent from the usual.

Ramie Fajardo, dispatcher of Mindanao Star bus that plies Davao-GenSan-Davao route, said their buses now depart with only eight to ten passengers, down from the average 40 passengers on regular days.

Over the weekend, “We were expecting an influx but there are just a few. Sana hindi ito magtagal,” he lamented on how the company will be able to give their wages if the situation persists.

On Sunday, local authorities started enforcing a 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew and other measures that will control and monitor the entry of people into this city.

In keeping with this, several malls in the city announced they are shortening operating time by two hours. KCC Mall said their doors will be closed at 8 p.m.

The city mayor said it is best that residents avoid “non-essential movement and mass gatherings” to avoid a potential spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.

Rivera said all “high-risk and vulnerable” individuals should remain in their homes and prohibited from going to public places.

He said this covers minors aged 17 and below, adults aged 60 and above, pregnant women, people who have special medical needs and immuno-compromised individuals.

“As of now, we are still COVID-19-free but we have to implement these drastic measures to protect our city. We really need the cooperation and understanding of everybody on these,” the mayor added.

Police and military checkpoints around the city on Saturday started implementing certain protocols, like the filling up of declaration forms by commuters and motorists, stating their destinations and travel origin.

Data gathered from this will be put in a data bank for easy contact tracing should there be a need to do so, said Dr. Lalaine Calonzo of the City Health Office. (Rommel G. Rebollido, with reports / MindaNews)