NY consulate suspends operations due to COVID-19, continues to process election ballots to mail with limited staff

by Ricky Rillera

The Philippine Consulate General in New York | PDM File Photo

NEW YORK (April 20) – The Philippine Consulate General in New York suspended its consular operations on Wednesday, April 20, after several of its staff had tested positive for COVID-19. It will resume its consular operations on Monday, April 25. However, the overseas voting operations to have ballots mailed to registered voters under its jurisdiction will not be affected.

The consulate, in an advisory, said that its immediate action was necessary to protect the safety of everyone – its staff and the public – from getting exposed to COVID-19. In addition, it advised those who visited the consulate on Monday, April 18, to have themselves checked for symptoms and, or get tested as a precautionary measure.

Nevertheless, according to the advisory, the consulate will accommodate Filipinos in distress and in other emergency cases.

In a video message, Consul General Elmer Cato asked for the understanding and patience of kababayan, who have scheduled appointments this week, for the inconvenience the suspension has caused. He assured them that their appointments would be rescheduled and given priority at the resumption of consular services.

Cato also assured those waiting for their ballots that they could exercise their right to vote. “We have not taken a holiday break during the Holy Week and continued to work to deliver the voting packets to the post office,” Cato said. Despite the shortage in personnel, he said that out of the almost 40,000 election packets it had received from Manila, they had delivered nearly 60 percent to the post office.

Thousands of election packets prepared for mailing | Photo via PCG New York Facebook page

He said that the consular staff worked hard since the vote counting machines (VCMs) and election packets arrived for the consulate to perform their required services. Besides their consular work, they continue to work overtime to help prepare the election packets. “As long as there are still some of us standing, we will continue to send out those ballots,” Cato said. “Tonight, we are still here, sorting out, still processing, putting stamps, and sealing all those envelopes to bring them to the post office tomorrow.”

The consul general’s video message drew a reaction from one of the many groups in the community supporting the same candidates in the 2022 Philippine national elections. One of them informed their supporters in a chat, saying, “don’t do nothing and wait to let this bad situation disenfranchise Leni’s voters in the US. Hope this is not the tip of a grand scheme to manipulate the result of the coming election.” It mocked the advisory, saying: “(t)he NY RP Consulate is suspending operation to COVID? Laughable indeed when offices in NY are opening their doors for workers to return ()back). COVID has been controlled and abated.”

Consular staff affix stamps on each envelope containing the election ballot | Photo via PCG New York Facebook

According to the consulate, it received 39,048 ballots from the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) on April 11, a day after overseas Filipino voters cast their votes. Consular staff had to test and seal the voting counting machines (VCMs), sort the ballots, seal envelopes, affix stamps and mail them. As of April 20, the consulate has mailed about 60 percent to registered overseas voters.

Meanwhile, several ballots had been returned to the consulate marked as undeliverable from a batch mailed last week. The consulate has provided a list of returned election packets. Also, for overseas registered voters whose addresses are care of by the consulate, they may pick up their ballots between Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.To claim their ballots, voters should bring a copy of their valid Philippine passport or Philippine citizenship reacquisition documents and proof of a change of address.

The consulate had fed its first set of ballots received from New York and surrounding areas into the VCMs on April 18, witnessed by the media and authorized observers from political parties. It expects to finalize the mailing of all remaining ballots by this week.

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