Philippines gives foreigners days to leave virus-hit region

Residents step on measured tape placed outside a supermarket to practice social distancing as a precautionary measure against the spread of the new coronavirus in Manila, Philippines, early Tuesday, March 17, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Thousands of foreign travelers need to leave the northern Philippines by Friday or they will be stranded in the region, which has been placed under quarantine because of a growing number of coronavirus infections, officials said Tuesday.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared an “enhanced community quarantine” on the main island of Luzon that requires millions of people to stay mostly at home and restricts land, air and sea travel to fight the COVID-19 disease. The monthlong containment, which took effect Tuesday, suspended school classes and most office work, including trading at the stock exchange, and cleared Manila’s main roads of their notorious traffic jams.

The Philippines has reported 187 cases of infections, according to the Department of Health, which confirmed Tuesday that one of its officials was among those sickened. Fourteen people have died, the most in Southeast Asia.

Transport Undersecretary Raul del Rosario said foreign tourists and travelers can opt to leave Luzon, where Manila is located, within 72 hours to avoid being stranded, because all flights from the region will be suspended.

When the deadline arrives, “they will have no option because all flights, domestic and international, will be canceled,” del Rosario told a news conference.

Many passengers jammed Manila’s main airport Tuesday.

Some airlines have already canceled flights, complicating the problems of outbound travelers.

The drastic moves announced by Duterte on Monday night, which include the suspension of mass transport, caught many by surprise and sparked traffic jams and confusion in many areas.

Hundreds of taxis were stopped by police along metropolitan Manila’s main EDSA highway for violating the transport ban and made to wait for hours in long rows on the sidelines. Many drivers said they were unaware of the ban and were eventually allowed to leave without fines.

“I’m the breadwinner of my family. If I don’t work for a month, will the government help me put food on our table, pay our house rent and our bills?” asked one of the taxi drivers, Jun Vergara. “We support this lockdown but we want to know if the government will help us survive it.”

Only one member of a family can leave home to buy food, officials said, but many establishments were closed Tuesday and long lines of people waited in front of supermarkets in metropolitan Manila.

Police and army troops stopped traffic at checkpoints to see if motorists had fevers and if they were among those allowed under quarantine rules to be out of their homes. Some argued heatedly with law enforcers after being stopped and ordered to go back.

Health workers and other employees allowed to report for work complained there were no buses or passenger jeeps to take them to work. Army trucks were later deployed to ferry them, officials said.

“These are first-day kinks. We’ll fix them,” Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said.

Aside from the containment effort, Duterte declared all of the Philippines in a state of calamity for six months to allow faster releases of emergency funds.

While the virus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.

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Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Manila and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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