As cases soar, Spaniards keep their masks firmly on

It's over 35 degrees Celsius and although masks are no longer obligatory in the streets of Spain, masks are everywhere in Madrid as people fear soaring Covid cases.

As cases soar, Spaniards keep their masks firmly on
In this file photo taken on June 26th, 2021 people walk with and without face masks in Madrid. The mask may no longer be compulsory in the street, but Spaniards are clinging to it and some regions want to impose it again outdoors in the face of a new wave of infections. Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Unlike people in many other European countries who have dropped their masks, Spaniards have largely opted to hang onto the face coverings that have become part of the daily lives of billions of people over the past 18 months.

“Just in case,” says Katherin Castro, an 18-year-old who has already had one dose of the vaccine.

“Covid’s still around and even with the vaccine, there are a lot of infections.”

Walking down one of Madrid’s wide avenues, Juana Delgado, 65, has her face covered with a surgical-grade FFP2 mask which she wears every day.

“I’m in a risk category so I wouldn’t think of dropping it at the moment although I was fully vaccinated two months ago,” she said. 

Despite being fully vaccinated two months ago, she says she only feels safe “at home”.

Nearly a month after Spain dropped its requirement for people to wear masks in the street, few here have done so unlike in the UK where face coverings were discarded this week, as France mulls a similar move for vaccinated people in some indoor locations.

READ ALSO: Spain drops masks outdoors but most faces stay covered
READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where and when do you still have to wear a face mask outdoors in Spain?

“In the coming days, our streets and our faces will regain their normal appearance,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez ahead of the lifting of the requirement on June 26th — as long as a safety distance of 1.5 metres can be observed.

But with new cases of the highly contagious Delta variant spreading rapidly, Delfin Rapado believes that “until 80 or 85 percent of the population is vaccinated, we shouldn’t be taking them off”.

So far, just over 50 percent of Spain’s 47 million people have been fully vaccinated.

Rapado, who is pushing his granddaughter in a buggy and keeps his distance while speaking, says “the government was wrong to drop mask-wearing so soon”, dismissing it as a ploy to bring back tourists.

And tourists “don’t wear masks”, complains Flor Cardeña, 64, who has a shop in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, grumbling as two bare-faced visitors walk past.

“I don’t feel safe. I’m not going to take off my mask even when the pandemic ends,” she says.

For Marie-Hélène Leheley, a 57-year-old French tourist visiting Barcelona, it’s a surprise to see so many people “wearing masks all the time”.

The Smile Decree
In areas where virus cases have shot up such as the northern Basque Country, the Balearic Islands, Catalonia in the northeast or Andalusia in the south, regional leaders have urged the central government to reimpose the outdoor mask rule — but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite defending its decision to drop the requirement, the government has tempered its language, with Health Minister Carolina Darias saying Tuesday that masks were “still compulsory” in Spain except “in very specific cases”.

On Wednesday, when parliament passed the so-called “Smiles Law” which formally ended mandatory mask-wearing at all times, some of the government’s key allies abstained and the right-wing voted against.

Oscar Zurriaga, deputy head of the Spanish Epidemiology Society, believes mask-wearing in the open air should never have been made compulsory.

“In well-ventilated outdoor areas where there aren’t big groups of people and where the safe distance can be maintained, it’s never been necessary,” he said.

But he said “the subliminal message” sent through dropping the use of masks is significant in that it causes people to drop other health precautious such as keeping a safe distance.

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Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

The Spanish government's health experts have agreed not to review face mask usage on public transport until March 2023, a new report has found, by which stage almost a whole year will have passed since other face mask rules were lifted.

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

Although masks haven’t been mandatory in indoor public settings (except hospitals, pharmacies, care homes and other health-related centres) since April 20th 2022, face coverings must still be worn on public transport in Spain, such as on buses, planes, taxis, metro carriages and trains.

According to a report published in Spanish news site Voz Populi, Spain’s Emergency Unit has agreed not to review Spain’s face mask rules until March 2023, even though all other Covid-19 domestic and travel restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022.

The article, which cites internal sources from Spain’s government, adds that the country’s Public Health Commission (a body which advises Spain’s Health Ministry on which measures to introduce) has reportedly agreed to shelve any possible changes until March, and as things stand keep the rule in place “for an indefinite time” as “it is not the right time to remove masks due to the arrival of winter”.

The Health Ministry, however, argues that no fixed date for reviewing face mask legislation has been set.

“We’re taking the German approach,” the Emergency Unit source told Voz Populi about the fact that Germany is the only other country in Europe with similar mask-wearing rules to Spain.

On October 1st, new measures were brought into force in Germany stating that passengers over the age of 14 must wear FFP2 masks on long-distance trains rather than surgical ones, with the German government saying it will not review the legislation until April 2023.

Fernando Simón, Spain’s Health Emergencies chief, told journalists recently that “it’s okay to wait a little bit to see how the disease evolves” before making a decision regarding the complete removal of face masks.

However, if Spanish health experts are indeed looking to follow in the footsteps of Germany, there is even a possibility that the return of face masks to all indoor public settings this winter could happen, or at least a debate about it. 

An increase in Covid and flu cases that’s overburdened hospitals this autumn, as well as the emergence of the new Omicron subvariant BQ.1, has resulted in German authorities considering whether they should bring back old Covid-19 restrictions for the winter months.

Spain is also starting to see an increase in Covid and flu infections, and talk of an eighth coronavirus wave is rumbling in the background, but there has been no mention yet by Health Ministry representatives of a possible return to indoor face mask wearing across the board.