‘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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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.