Governor Joseph Cua last week made a public appeal to constituents and travelers to Catanduanes to abide by the minimum health protocols being implemented against COVID-19, particularly the stricter border controls at the port of Tabaco.
The chief executive’s statement on his official Facebook page was issued after several would-be passengers were ordered off the 1 P.M. ferry at the port last Thursday, March 25, 2021, for not presenting negative results of antigen tests pursuant to an executive order he issued that took effect three days earlier.
“If we don’t strictly enforce our rules, COVID-19 cases could increase in the province,” Gov. Cua said.
He urged those traveling home to the island province to follow the regulations being implemented by the government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In seeking everyone’s cooperation, he stressed that the rules are being imposed for their safety and are intended to heighten the province’s security against this health threat.
Executive Order No. 012 requires all persons traveling to the island, including Authorized Persons Outside Residents (APORs), to present an original copy of a negative result for COVID-19 done through RT-PCR, saliva or antigen test issued three days before the scheduled date of arrival.
The EO exempts from the negative test requirement those travelling from Catanduanes to any province within the Bicol region as long as they secure a Letter of Exemption (LOE) at the designated desk at the Provincial Capitol, with the LOE to be presented to border control upon reentry to the province. The LOE is not valid for any travel outside the Bicol region, it clarified.
The new travel guidelines, which were put out on social media and posted at the ports of entry, apparently were ignored by a party of six people (not four as reported by other media outlets) who arrived at Tabaco port on Thursday morning on board a van.
According to Jose Mari Amaranto, a staffer of the Catanduanes Provincial Health Office assigned to take charge of border control at Tabaco port, a guard at the port’s main gate stopped the van to verify from the driver if he and his passengers were taking the ferry to Catanduanes.
The passengers were then asked to step down and present their documents to the border control officers, Reggie Buenconsejo and Mary Grace Alta. The officers are both residents of the city along with a fourth employee who serves as driver transporting swab specimens to the Bicol Regional Diagnostic and Research Laboratory.
It was a 61-year man, identified as Edgardo Nesina of #89 Elizalde, BF Homes, Parañaque City, who went out first, followed by his six-year old son and his wife, 23-year old Rosemarie Torzar.
When the staff asked for their negative test result as required by the Cua EO, Nesina reportedly replied: “Bakit may ganyan pa dito? Irereklamo ko ang governor na yan, susulatan ko si Duque.”
At this point, Amaranto was just nearby, observing the exchange and noting that there were two other passengers inside the car aside from the driver, who was named as Vicente Buenaflor of Aljon Trucking & Trading Services based in Sta. Cruz, Virac as shown on his ID bearing number 2020-D02.
The other two passengers were the woman’s cousin, Roy Torzar, and a teenaged boy who was not identified.
As the border control staff insisted on the test result, Nesina and his family left to look for the van, which had gone inside the port.
The driver apparently went straight to the Regina Shipping Lines office and paid for the van’s passage aboard the ferry. It is claimed that port security guards failed to check if van driver and passengers already had tickets.
Under the standard operating procedure, passengers bound for Catanduanes have to secure a piece of paper stamped by the border control and indicating therein the number of passengers to be issued ferry tickets.
By 7:15 A.M., the van was already inside the ferry at the rear portion when Philippine Coast Guard personnel began their inspection and found out that those in the van had no tickets.
The team immediately informed Amaranto, who rushed to the ferry together with Buenconsejo.
At the boarding ramp, they noticed Torzar already at the passenger deck taking photos with her cellphone. They immediately called the attention of the crew and told them to have the woman get off the ship as she had no ticket.
Nesina and company eventually left the ship on board the car to undergo antigen testing at a nearby clinic.
At 10:30 A.M., the Tabaco City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CDRRMO) called Amaranto to inform that two of those who had themselves tested were positive.
The border control in-charge went out to look for them and found the couple sitting near the clinic, with the others inside the van.
He advised the couple, who had tested positive, to go back to Paranaque City.
According to Amaranto, the governor had been advised to let the couple into the island as long as they sit in a designated, isolated area during the ferry crossing and to undergo quarantine and swab test when they arrived. But the border control was later informed that Caramoran Mayor Glenda Aguilar refused to accept the couple into Tubli.
That afternoon, the van, minus the couple, returned to the port intending to take the 5 P.M. ferry trip to Catanduanes and told border control that Nesina and his wife were on their way back to Metro Manila on board a rented van.
The following day, the Caramoran MDRRMO, Gener Tivar, called Amaranto to ask for details about the couple and their IDs.
Minutes later, he called back again with the report that Nesina and Torzar were already in Tubli and had apparently rode a motorized banca which had fetched them at Tabaco.
Apparently, someone in Tubli agreed to make the night crossing of Maqueda Channel for P10,000.
Upon learning of the incident, Mayor Aguilar immediately convened the municipal IATF and discussed measures to be taken, with the couple isolated in their home while the other 13 close contacts were likewise told to stay in their homes, with barangay tanods posted outside.
Meanwhile, the requirement for negative COVID-19 test result has received criticism on social media, with commenters stating that paying for the antigen test would be an undue burden for those who have lost jobs and trying to return to the province.
The Office of the Governor named two testing centers near the port: Sacred Heart Clinic at Oro Site which charges P1,400 for the antigen swab test, and Dr. Amando D. Cope Memorial Hospital, which charged P2,500 per test.
It is claimed that the test is much cheaper in Legazpi City or Daraga, while in Metro Manila, the antigen test can be had for as low as P700.
Cebu Pacific Airways, which flies to Virac, has its own antigen testing center for its passengers at NAIA Terminal 3, which is open from 2 AM to 2 PM daily.
Passengers will have to register on site and pay P700 for the test directly to the airline’s diagnostic partner, Philippine Airport Diagnostic Laboratory (PADL), with the results released within 30 minutes.