Spain drops masks outdoors but most faces stay covered

A few smiles were visible in Madrid on Saturday but most kept their faces covered as Spain dropped its requirement for people to wear masks in the street.

Spain drops masks outdoors but most faces stay covered
People in Spain are now allowed to go without a mask outdoors. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

It’s been a legal requirement to wear a mask in the open air for just over a year, with offenders risking a fine, but in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square, few could be seen with their faces uncovered.

“I really like walking around and I sweat a lot so for me, taking off the mask is a pleasure,” smiles 76-year-old Antonia Maldonado.

She and her husband, both in their 70s, are among the few people walking through the busy square without masks under a cloudless blue sky.

Masks first became obligatory on public transport in early May 2020 in a bid to reduce Covid-19 infections, and within weeks were made compulsory in the street for anyone aged six and above.

People may now remove their masks in the open air as long as they keep 1.5 metres (5 feet) away from each other, but should cover up if that’s not possible, health officials said this week.

And masks remain obligatory on public transport or in taxis or cars carrying people who don’t live together.

“I think it will be a very slow process for people to feel comfortable not using the mask in public, indoors or wherever,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, a 34-year-old systems engineer visiting from Miami who was not wearing a mask.

“I am vaccinated, that’s why I feel a bit safer. For me, it doesn’t represent any kind of danger or risk,” he smiled.

‘A mask is essential these days’

The decision was approved by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s cabinet on Thursday and comes as vaccination rates rise and infections continue to fall.

So far, more than half of Spain’s 47 million population have had a first dose of the vaccine, with one in every three people fully vaccinated, figures showed Friday.

Many shoppers, however, insisted they would continue wearing masks until the situation was a bit more stable.

“It’s essential to wear a mask, not to protect myself, but to protect everyone around me,” said Maria Luisa Ines, 69, whose face was covered. “For me a mask is essential nowadays.”

Eduardo Marin Valdez, a 59-year-old school teacher who had just had his second vaccination, had also chosen to keep his mask. “I know I’m protected but we can still be contagious, so any safety measures are good,” he told AFP.

“Masks should only disappear when the scientific authorities say so, which will be when there’s a very high percentage of people vaccinated or when the accumulated instance of cases are minimal.”

Earlier this year, Spain briefly introduced a law making masks obligatory at all times on the beach, but after a backlash it was amended. Now they are not necessary while sunbathing or swimming – if social distancing is respected.

Spain has so far lost over 80,000 lives to the virus and counted more than 3.7 million cases.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where and when do you still have to wear a face mask outdoors in Spain?

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.