ICYMI, the ‘Better Normal Bill’ has just been approved on its third reading

On Aug. 10, the House of Representatives approved House Bill No. 6864 or “An Act Establishing Public Health and Environmental Standards and Safeguards for the Better Normal in the Workplace, Public Spaces and Communities Toward a Sustainable Recovery from the Coronavirus Disease-19 Pandemic” on its third and final reading. With 242 affirmative votes, nobody voted no or abstained.

Under the “Better Normal Bill,” Filipinos will still be required to wear face masks, undergo regular temperature checks and continue social distancing in public areas even after the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The bill aims “to stem the transmission of COVID-19 and other similar diseases that may result in any other pandemic.” Aside from requiring the general public to wear protective equipment from the virus such as face masks and face shields, the “Better Normal Bill” added that the government “shall endeavor to implement the free distribution of masks to the general public to guarantee the full cooperation of every citizen.” 

Officials of local government units (LGUs) which are considered as containment zones or critical zones are required to establish testing centers, procure testing kits, protective equipment and other necessary materials to conduct mass testing in their respective areas.

Moreover, the Department of Health, together with the assistance of LGUs, are mandated to conduct contact tracing and to set up quarantine facilities for “individuals who are suspected of being infected or tested positive for COVID-19 or other infectious diseases.” These individuals will be required to undergo mandatory quarantine.

Public transportation will be reopened, however, passengers will need to sanitize their hands before boarding the vehicle and will be seated one seat apart from the other passengers. The operation of motorcycle taxis, on the other hand, will still be suspended to prevent the transmission of the virus through shared helmets and close proximity between the driver and passenger. 

“Contact-less payment methods” such as the use of money trays and automatic fare collection systems will still be promoted.

The government also aims to implement universal broadband access “to ensure a better normal in recognition of the crucial role of a strong information and communications technology (ICT) system.”

As for the education sector, the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education are authorized to implement flexible learning programs for all students in public and private learning institutions “provided, that students shall not be penalized for their inability to access or participate in electronic or digital means of learning due to limitations in connectivity or unavailability of equipment,” the bill said. Digital learning will be promoted considering the capabilities of the students and the teachers to deliver the system.

For the operations of the business sector, all private, commercial, industrial and other forms of businesses will be required to submit a Management Plan that discusses their business’ compliance with the necessary safety protocols under the “Better Normal Bill” to their respective LGUs.

Public gatherings will still be prohibited “subject to the exceptions as may be provided under the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of this act.” However, privately-organized gatherings such as events, parties, funerals, religious mass and sacraments, sports gatherings and other recreational activities will also need to comply with the IRR, including the need to apply for a “Better Normal Permit” issued by the LGU. 

If the bill becomes a law, violators of the bill can be fined a range from P1,000 to P50,000 and can face imprisonment between one to two months. Establishments that fail to comply could risk the suspension of their permit to operate. However, government officials and employees could face stricter punishments such as imprisonment for two to six months or a fine of between P5,000 and P100,000.

With the way that the government is currently handling the pandemic, some people are criticizing this bill as another “solution” that will only burden sectors already aggravated by the pandemic. Not only this, but the close monitoring of private gatherings even beyond the pandemic is also something to be vigilant about. 

Despite initially voting for the bill, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate wrote a letter addressed to Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano withdrawing his support of the bill. He specifically cited the section about the prohibition of public gatherings.

“The prohibition on gatherings, we submit, impinges on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of our people to express themselves and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” Zarate said.

“In these days that the freedom of speech and expression are besieged, we cannot, in good conscience, support acts that we believe might only further curtail the said rights,” he added.

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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