Rolling restart
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Cash registers in the major supermarket chains and grocery stores have been designed to automatically reject the purchase of basic items in excess of the amounts prescribed under anti-hoarding regulations.

So people are not hoarding, and they cannot engage in panic buying even if they wanted to. And yet the lines are again long outside supermarkets and the crowds at public markets are heavy, even with social or physical distancing.

The lines have triggered speculation that after being cooped up for a month at home, some people are even willing to wait in line for hours to enter and then check out their items in supermarkets, simply to get out of the confines of their homes.

In certain Metro Manila thoroughfares, the number of vehicles has increased so significantly that the Philippine National Police has started cracking down on quarantine violators.

This meant stricter enforcement of the rules limiting the movement of people to only those with passes for shopping and other essential services. It meant traffic near the checkpoints at EDSA – now a rare sight – and hassle for many motorists. The hassle, I guess, is the intended consequence, so people will think twice about skirting quarantine rules just to ease cabin fever.

Everyone is impatient for this ordeal to be over. If it’s any consolation to worried health experts, many people are also fearful of the consequences of lifting the enhanced community quarantine too early.

*      *      *

Naturally, the antsiest is the business community. President Duterte’s adviser on entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion, whose family is into food processing and manufacture of home appliances, has been active in efforts to assist micro, small and medium enterprises in this crisis.

Concepcion, like other big business executives such as SM’s Tessie Sy Coson, is pushing for a modified quarantine, with restrictions becoming selective or targeted, so that only areas or communities with a certain number of confirmed COVID-19 cases are placed under some form of lockdown.

At the same time, more enterprises will be allowed to resume operations. Facing “The Chiefs” in our special livestreamed episode yesterday on Cignal TV’s One News, Concepcion surely made the audience hopeful with his proposals, among which are the limited reopening of shopping malls and resumption of certain forms of mass transportation where social distancing can be enforced with some ease.

That means the resumption of light rail services and perhaps limited bus operations, but jeepneys will likely remain grounded. Elmer Francisco of local jeepney maker Francisco Motors told The Chiefs that jeepney drivers, who are among the worst hit by the quarantine, would be needing sustained assistance through this crisis.

*      *      *

The pressure to restart the economy is certain to intensify amid reports that other countries are gradually reopening business activities.

Many sectors are already in urgent need of lifelines.Obviously, the longer the quarantine lasts, the closer the sectors will be to sinking completely.

Tourism in particular is already on a ventilator, from the daily wage earners to the big-ticket industry players.

Among hotel operators alone, there is a long wish list enumerated in the Tourism Response and Recovery Program that has been submitted to the Department of Tourism. The Philippine Hotel Owners Association (PHOA) is asking the government for several assistance measures.

Among these are the provision of 100 percent relief from corporate income tax for 2019 and 2020, and 50 percent for 2021 and 2022; a renovation fund to compensate hotels used during the crisis for healthcare and government support; short-term working capital loans with zero interest for up to two years from government banks for those who reopen their businesses; a 12-month holiday from VAT and local government fees plus a 12-month deferment of existing payments, and additional tax holidays and incentives.

The PHOA, led by Arthur Lopez, wants losses from business interruption due to a pandemic or an epidemic to be covered by insurance, plus a five-year government guarantee for hotels’ credit.

For their employees, the hotel operators are asking for a 100 percent income tax holiday for 2020, plus payment flexibility on bank loans. The group wants subsidies for 2020 contributions to the Social Security System, Philippine Health Insurance and Pag-IBIG.

For the longer term, when global travel normalizes, the group is seeking intensified tourism promotion overseas, expansion of visa-free entry to include other countries, and greater air connectivity with major source markets.

I can see the revenue collectors wincing. Still, the Department of Tourism has said it had endorsed the relevant recommendations to the SSS, Pag-IBIG and PhilHealth. Certain tourism-related fees are also being waived, according to the DOT.

Rehabilitation financing is also being worked out with the Land Bank of the Philippines and Development Bank of the Philippines.

Similar forms of assistance are being sought by other sectors of the travel industry.

*      *      *

For what proponents describe as a “rolling restart” of the economy, we can consider what other countries are doing.

Switzerland and Germany, for example, intend to reopen schools soon. Among the businesses that are allowed to reopen are hairdressers. Renowned for its wellness spas, Switzerland is allowing physiotherapists to resume operations, but not bars and restaurants.

Meanwhile, in the land of Audi, BMW and Mercedes Benz, car and bike dealers will be allowed to reopen. And with schools reopening in Germany, so will book stores. Germany is also allowing shops with a floor area of no more than 800 square meters (where physical distancing is easier to observe) to reopen.

Joey Concepcion told The Chiefs that Philippine shopping mall operators and the public could be expected to behave responsibly and observe physical distancing in case the government approves a limited reopening of the malls.

But first, we have to make sure that the COVID-19 curve is flattening. So we all have to hunker down for two more weeks. Without the desired results, we’ll have to endure another two weeks… and another…

ARTHUR LOPEZ PHOA
Philstar
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