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”.
“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.
“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 20minutos.es.
“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.