With Covid-19 vaccine campaigns in their later stages and infection rates generally lower, several countries around the world have eased their face mask rules.
Such is the case in England, where masks are now not required in shops and even on certain modes of public transport, or in the US, where fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear one in most indoor settings.
Spain on the other hand has been strict on its mask-wearing policy throughout the pandemic and its citizens have willingly complied in general.
Many people are still wearing masks outdoors, even though they’ve not been required by Spanish authorities since June, as long as a safety distance of 1.5 metres can be maintained.
So when might it be possible to remove face masks indoors in Spain (other than for eating and drinking) ?
In early October, Spanish media reported that Health Minister Carolina Darias had said that the use of masks indoors would be required until the spring of 2022.
On Wednesday at a press conference after Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council, Darias stressed she never stated that the mandatory use of masks would end in spring next year.
“The face mask has come to stay, at least while the flu virus or other possible viruses are present this autumn,” she reiterated.
“Spain was one of the first countries to regulate the safety distance in outdoor spaces to not have to wear a mask outside, but we know the importance of its use indoors where transmission by aerosols is proven”.
“Let’s take it slowly,” Darias concluded.
As usual, Spain’s regional governments have their own views on Covid-19 rules.
Madrid president Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the regional leader with the most liberal take on Covid restrictions during the pandemic, has again taken a different approach by actually offering something closer to a date for when mandatory mask-wearing indoors will be scrapped.
The end of indoor masks should come “after Christmas,” stated Ayuso in late September. “Total” normality and “pre-pandemic” life should not be delayed beyond the spring of 2022, she added.
Castilla-La Mancha president Emiliano García-Page has also suggested February 2022 as an end date for mandatory masks indoors in the central Spanish region.
Are regions relaxing any mask-wearing rules?
Catalan Education Minister Josep González-Cambray said on Wednesday that “We will get rid of face masks in schools as soon as we can”.
According to González-Cambray, the use of face masks in schools is a “health measure” dependent on epidemiological criteria, which is why it will be down to the health departments to decide.
In Valencia, the Generalitat government has said that it will scrap the requirement for children to wear a mask in the school playground.
“We are working every week with the Health Department and in the next few days the protocol will be updated” because the numbers have been very favorable,” said Valencia’s Minister of Education Vicent Marzà on Saturday.
However, in the Balearic Islands, the regional government has decided the use of masks in the school playground should continue, causing an outcry from many students and their parents.
Balearic Minister of Health Patricia Gómez confirmed yesterday that the use of masks will continue to be mandatory in school playgrounds “until the situation improves”.
Why wait until after the winter if the numbers are good now?
The epidemiological situation in Spain is currently the best it’s been since autumn of last year, with a 14-day cumulative incidence of 40.85 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
This means that the country is currently at very low risk for Covid infections according to the categorisation used by the Spanish health ministry.
In addition to this, almost 80 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a percentage that’s higher still if focusing only on those who are eligible for the vaccine (people aged 12 and over).
According to César Carballo, deputy emergency physician at Hospital Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, Spain is in a good epidemiological situation now which should allow to at least remove their masks outdoors.
But flu season is on its way, government leaders and health professionals are keen for the use of masks indoors to continue until after the winter.
“There is talk that we may have more cases of the flu. We do not know. Last year the flu disappeared completely. We will see this year,” Carballo told Spanish TV channel La Sexta.
“Health personnel are exhausted … to suffer a wave of flu this year would be a severe blow,” he added. “If it were up to me I would maintain that mask-wearing indoors should be required until January or February, accompanied by hand washing and distance”.