‘Im keeping it on’: As Spain’s outdoor mask rule ends, many remain cautious

Spain dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, though many people across the country have chosen to keep wearing them, with face coverings now an everyday staple.

People, some wearing face-masks, walk in a street as they enjoy a day out in Barcelona. It's no longer mandatory to wear a face mask in Spain but many prefer to keep it on. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Spain’s government first imposed obligatory mask-wearing outdoors in May 2020, lifted it in June last year and then reimposed the measure just before Christmas as Omicron cases exploded.

Now Spain’s 47 million inhabitants are back to not requiring a face mask outdoors anymore (wearing one indoors remains mandatory).

But even as rules eased across the country on Thursday, in Madrid, some kept them on out of habit.

READ ALSO: When do I still have to wear a mask outdoors in Spain?

“I’m wearing one and I’ll keep on doing so even though the law says I can take it off,” said Alberto Díaz, a pensioner from the southern Andalusia region who was in the city for a concert.

He’s one of many people across Spain who are choosing to keep their masks on. “I think that once the pandemic is over, I will continue to wear it, to avoid other viruses, outside and inside. It’s tiring sometimes, but it’s a habit now,” Argentinian tourist Sol Carvalho told AFP.

Face masks have been embraced across Spain in all public spaces, both inside and out, and they have largely become ubiquitous like in many cities in Asia.

Although they will remain compulsory at large open-air gatherings where social distancing is not possible, they will no longer be required in school playgrounds or busy streets, although it’s still recommended by Spain’s Health Ministry.

“I trust the people who have studied this, like the epidemiologists, and if they have given the order to remove the mask, it is because there is no danger,” argued Zaragoza resident María Jesús Remacha.

Soraya Baladés, a piano teacher who lives in the Spanish capital, said: “I really wanted to take it off because there wasn’t much sense in keeping the mask outside anymore, the mask should really be used inside, where the contaminations happen and not outside.”

Newlyweds Ricardo Alfredo Sánchez and Yvette Candero looked delighted as they had their photo taken in Puerta del Sol Square. “It’s not the same having a souvenir photo taken with your face covered, you can’t see the person’s expression or how happy they are,” said the groom.

“It was getting a little boring wearing the mask all the time and it just so happened that for this special occasion we had the opportunity to take it off.”

In another anticipated move, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, nightlife venues were set to open at the stroke of midnight (2300 GMT). In late December, the Catalan government put in place some of Spain’s most restrictive measures to fight Omicron, imposing a night curfew from 1:00 am, closing nightlife venues and halving the capacity in bars and restaurants.

The bar and restaurant restrictions were eased last month, but nightlife venues had remained closed, until Friday — with most set to open just after midnight.

Despite high vaccination rates, Covid cases exploded in Spain over the Christmas holidays, giving it one of Europe’s highest incidence rates, although that has now fallen. So far, Spain has registered some 10.5 million infections and more than 95,000 deaths.

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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.