‘Minimum impact’: What Spain’s health experts think of the outdoor face mask rule

Pedro Sánchez’s announcement on Wednesday that face masks will again be required in most outdoor situations in Spain from December 24th has not been well received by many Spaniards. But what do the scientists and doctors make of the return of this Covid restriction on Christmas Eve?

People with face masks stroll along a street in downtown Burgos.
People with face masks stroll along a street in downtown Burgos. Spanish health experts believe the return of the face mask rule for outdoor spaces won't help curb infections. (Photo by Cesar Manso / AFP)

It’s fair to say that Wednesday afternoon’s announcement that face masks will once again be compulsory in most outdoor situations in Spain has had its fair share of criticism among the general public.

The hashtags #absurdo (#pointless) and #MascarillasEnLaCalleNo” (#NoFaceMasksOnTheStreets) was trending on Wednesday evening on Twitter.

The arguments against the old face mask rule, which was scrapped last June and is due to come into force again on Christmas Eve, are varied. But many ordinary citizens are citing scientific evidence when saying that the effectiveness of face masks in outdoor spaces is far lower than in interiors, and that only five of Spain’s 17 regions had called for the rule to return.

Sánchez’s political opponents haven’t missed out on the chance to criticise his move either. Más País leader Íñigo Errejón has referred to the measure as “useless” and Madrid’s divisive leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who defiantly chose to not wear a face mask during Sánchez’s video conference, later referred to the measure as “inefficient”. 

Catalan Republic Left (ERC) leader Gabriel Rufián argued it was “almost like handing out umbrellas in the middle of a tsunami”.

So what do Spain’s health experts make of the requirement of wearing a face mask in the street even when a distance of 1.5 metres can be kept from others?

Virologist Margarita del Val of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) told Basque radio Onda Vasca that the face mask rule “will help a bit but it’s a measure with a minimum effect”, recognising also that with some people there has to be a rule in place for them to meet the minimum safety requirements during the pandemic. 

“We welcome the measure, it’s not hurting anyone, but it’s going to have a small impact as virus transmissions happen mainly indoors,” Spanish epidemiologist Quique Bassat told Spanish national broadcaster RTVE.

“We need stricter and more restrictive measures capable of containing this runaway transmission”, adding that in any case “there are masks that protect better than others, and if we want more protection, we can use the more efficient FFP2 ones”.

prime minister pedro sanchez spain face mask
Sánchez has justified the return of the face mask outdoors rule arguing it is necessary to tackle the higher transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

“We asked for more restrictive measures regarding capacity and opening hours,” Dr. Álvaro Castellanos, president of the Spanish Society of Critical Medicine and Coronary Units (SEMICYUC), told Spanish public radio RNE. 

This was one of the demands made by some of the regions to be included in a national framework, but Sánchez and his government again argued on Wednesday that it would be up to regional authorities to set their own rules if they saw fit. 

READ MORE: What Covid measures have Spain’s regions agreed to this Christmas?

“We insisted on the importance of speeding up vaccination in adults over 50 years of age, because that booster dose will be very important to protect ourselves against Omicron,” Castellanos added, something which the Spanish government is planning to do as part of the other measures agreed to at the Conference of Regional Presidents.

For Castellanos, at least “the outdoors mask requirement will once again make us aware of the seriousness of the situation, because until now things had pretty much gone back to normal”.

But for other Spanish health experts, regardless of how effective masks can be and the message the restriction sends, the problem still lies in the conundrum of taking one’s mask off when sitting down to meet others.

“Wearing a mask on the street and taking it off when inside a bar because you are going to eat or drink is the same as wearing a helmet in the street and taking it off when you get on your motorbike, just because it bothers you to drive with a helmet,” University of Navarra microbiologist Ignacio López-Goñi descriptively told online daily

“It’s a political move rather than a scientific one,” Joan Carles March of Andalusia Public Health School is quoted as saying in El Independiente. 

“It’s an easy measure to pass, but very weak when it comes to controlling the pandemic.

“We should ask people to wear masks in crowds, but making them mandatory again is not necessary. It has never been necessary outside if you are more than 1.5 meters away from another person”.

Following the initial announcement of the face mask rule, Sánchez clarified that there would be some exceptions included in Thursday’s decree such as “for sport, in the countryside, natural spaces and for taking a walk with a friend or family member if a distance of 1.5 metres is kept”.

Even though daily infections over the past two days have beaten Spanish records since the pandemic began, the return of the old mask rule has angered a part of Spanish society who see it as an unnecessary step back. 

For many other Spaniards who were already wearing face masks outdoors in crowds as Covid cases started to rise in December, it will be a case of having to adapt to the old rule on December 24th as they join their loved ones for Christmas.

Member comments

  1. Does anyone know where long stay tourists can get a booster in Barcelona. We are over 70 and will be here for 2 months.

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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.